The old maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words takes on new significance when art incorporates text. The use of letters, words and meaningful phrases as visual elements in artwork is a fairly recent invention--the two media still are perceived by many as essential opposites. If not for pop art's obsession with comic-book imagery and advertising art in the Sixties, such text-wielding innovators as Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Ed Ruscha might never have emerged.

These days critics tend to analyze pictures as if they were texts to be read, and the distinction between the printed and the painted word is a blurry one. Artists experiment with a multitude of perspectives on the symbols of the alphabet, producing art that ranges from visual puns to sociological tracts. Both the eyes and the mind are engaged; inventive presentation allows the letters to be savored for their physical beauty as well as for their multiple meanings.

Text-based art is explored in surprisingly diverse ways in two shows at neighboring Wazee Street galleries. The mixed-media sculpture of Larry Kirkland usually dominates public spaces with its massive scale. But at Sandy Carson Gallery, Kirkland places model-size sculptures alongside several full-size but less monumental pieces, one covering the floor with close to 100 feet of carved stone tiles; all of the works are emblazoned with thoughtful text. Accompanying Kirkland's pieces are Lorelei Schott's small, framed paintings, which depict miniature, graffiti-splashed walls. And next door, at The Art of Craft, Ted Clausen utilizes the personal writings of others--along with exquisite craft forms and methods--to construct offbeat portraits in glass, stone and wood.

Kirkland's commanding sculptures enthrall viewers with new ways to think about words and their graphic beauty. "Push/Pull" is a large steel wheel that literally can be pushed or pulled by its graceful curved handle. Cut out of the surface of the wheel like a stencil are the words "FORGIVE FORGET RENEW REGRET." The image of the moving wheel, causing those words to endlessly repeat, revolves in the mind like a mantra.

This same concept fuels several of Kirkland's other sculptures, which use repetition and circular philosophy to illustrate profound concepts conceived in playful ways. "Written in Water," a one-fourth-scale model of a water wheel with glass paddles, has the words "AND" and "ON" etched on alternating paddles, so that if the wheel could move, the phrase "and on and on" would repeat continuously. "Garden Path" is the largest of these circular works, a ring of stone tiles engraved with flowers and questions ("Who do you love? What is your joy?"). Viewers are led down the garden path while contemplating the answers.

Another novel Kirkland construction is presented in "Stair," in which the word "SORROW" is cast as a shadow on the wall. The letters that cast the shadow exist materially as stenciled cutouts on each step of a diminutive wooden stairway; superb lighting causes the ghostly message to come to life. This stairway-to-nowhere, hanging isolated on the wall, changes with the angle of viewing, causing the shadows to intensify and move. The ethereal, poetic way the artist "writes" here adds volumes to the sculpture's impact.

Complementing Kirkland's elegance and formality with sly humor and photorealist mimicry, Lorelei Schott fills the front space at Sandy Carson with her own brand of text-filled art. Her small sculptural paintings, not unlike certain dollhouse miniatures, graphically reproduce tenement walls and abandoned houses. But Schott's faithful representations of old brick, ruined paint, graffiti and broken windows are a far cry from the nostalgic kitsch of the hobbyist constructions these little homes imitate. The words and phrases written on the walls are loaded with meaning that goes beyond their ability to set an apocalyptic mood. Often the graffiti suggests a punning irony related to some visual element within the frame. "Goddesses" is a slice of wall with a tiny window holding a glimpse of a bulbous ancient artifact called the Venus of Willendorf. Surrounded by the rudely scrawled comments of vandals, this trapped domestic goddess offers a new twist on the idea of home as a place of serene safety.

If text-based art has any functional flaw, it might be that the text at times is too literal. Words and phrases that have no mystery can remove the work from the realm of art, turning it into mere rhetoric. This line is tread dangerously by Ted Clausen, whose commissioned "portraits" at The Art of Craft are functional, commemorative objects that, in their description of actual individuals and events, might easily be read as prose rather than poetry. Thankfully, Clausen's superb workmanship and his sensitivity in choosing methods and materials make these craft-based portraits unique.

Clausen collects his clients' words, listening to their memories, poems, songs and the details of their intimate personal lives. He then tailors his media and materials to the personality of the individual "sitting" for a portrait. The final products--beautifully made wooden boxes, stone sculptures, glass containers, altars and memorials--bear no physical resemblance to the people being portrayed. But their own words appear in the pieces, infusing each one-of-a-kind work with calligraphic beauty.

"Anniversary Poem," for example, is a wonderfully crafted wooden box that incorporates thirty verses of a poem written by a son for his parents' fortieth anniversary. The script of the poem is printed on pieces of wood that slide snugly into slots in the box. Complex and puzzlelike, the construction harmonizes with the poem's repeated metaphor of life as an intricate weaving. And "A Geologist's Memorial," commissioned by friends of a woman geologist who died without a memorial, is a lovely hunk of natural rock whose carved, polished face contains a moving poem written by the geologist herself. The glowing lines are engraved in the characteristic typescript of a scientific report and are revealed only by the removal of a sliding cover of darkened glass.

Where the innovative work of these three artists is concerned, a word is worth a thousand pictures.

Larry Kirkland and Lorelei Schott, through June 3 at Sandy Carson Gallery, 1734 Wazee Street, 297-8585; Private Words: The Commissioned Works of Ted Clausen, through June at The Art of Craft, 1736 Wazee Street, 292-5564.

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Hart Hill