In its 28th year, the 2009-10 McKnight Visual Artists Fellowship exhibition could be likened to a baseball home opener. It's an anticipated event but doesn't represent the entire season -- or in this case the entire arts community.

The show features the work of four Minnesota artists who receive coveted recognition and a desirable cash prize. As usual the four bodies of work have little in common, but if there is one idea that links the work of Michael Kareken, Aldo Moroni, Carolyn Swiszcz and Piotr Szyhalski, it is their exploration of the abstract construct of time.

Most accessible are Kareken's paintings and drawings of fields of recycled glass bottles, grids of compressed scrap metal and tangles of discarded engines that make obvious his keen eye and technical facility for making the ordinary resonate. Although it depicts refuse, Kareken's work, sporting titles like "Scrap Engines #3," is animated by an elegance that confirms his ability to locate the essence of his subject matter.

In a painting titled "Green Bottles," the viewer is mired in a quicksand of bottles, as if sinking amid a huge recycling container. Deftly using an edge-to-edge style of painting recalling Abstract Expressionism, Kareken sheathes his work with a layer of melancholy and loss that unearths two narratives: the history of these discarded objects and a more political critique of our consumption.

Rise and fall

For more than three decades, Moroni has investigated ancient civilizations in his ceramic-based work. His installation projects -- which he calls "mock archaeology" -- are part fact and part fantasy, imaginatively re-creating the rise and fall of societies. In "Fragilearth," the civilization narrative played out through 18-foot sculptural "mountains," spiky flora and puffy clouds suspended from the ceiling has an unexpected twist: Its future demise is not because of a conquering people but due to nature. Suggesting the jagged mountains depicted in ancient Chinese scrolls, the installation is fanciful and imposing.

Moroni, always the activist, works Monday through Friday on "Fragilearth" from 10 a.m. to noon and welcomes the input of visitors so that the project evolves in real time in a communal way. For all of its curb appeal, the installation's base is clumsy, as if the sculptural forms were casually placed on a shelf. But, more important, will Moroni destroy "Fragilearth" in a post-exhibition performance? It's a question that causes Moroni to smile like the Cheshire Cat.

Urban ephemera

Swiszcz has been making some of the more provocative yet understated work in the Twin Cities and her current offering does not disappoint. Here, her protagonists are the psychological and physical wastelands of abandoned strip malls.

Wisp-like and ephemeral, her mixed-media drawings and only slightly more concrete oil-on-canvas paintings seem to depict the remembrances of actual buildings or places in works titled "Liquor Big" and "So. St. Paul Animal Hospital." So disembodied and fleeting are these images that one could almost reach through them, yet their stories of past glories and current disuse evoke a psychological malaise raising the question of why these places, or our memory of them, are important.

Two short related videos by Swiszcz, "Tuesday Afternoon" and "Offering," are lean parodies of music videos, conveying with cleverness the plight and transformation of these once thriving but now abandoned urban spaces, and should not be missed.

Moments of impact

Szyhalski's installation "Apologia" is as compelling as it is inaccessible. Made up of video, 12 altered Edison gramophone records, custom electronics, a bank of 12 identical wall clocks, two VU meters and lights, the piece's content is virtually impenetrable. Nonetheless, complex notions of time, narrative, history and sound emerge.

The artist-designed label of each antique record identifies moments of impact, such as the bombing of Hiroshima or the destruction of the World Trade Towers. A digital screen, mounted flat on two yellow sawhorses, is programmed with ghost images of planes that intermittently race across the dark surface, eventually colliding. The impact triggers lights and the VU meters. Ironically, there is no sound.

Also figuring significantly in the conceptual mix are references to Ludwig Wittgenstein's "Tractatus Logico Philosophicus" (1921), written when the philosopher was a soldier and a World War I POW. With no written project description, "Apologia" is all but indecipherable but still powerful, like an ancient hieroglyphic tablet. Only a brief Wittgenstein quote serves as a guide: "What can be said at all can be said clearly; and what we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence." Indeed.

Exhibitions of work by fellowship artists are a bit of a crapshoot. Such shows represent an invited jury's short list about who is most deserving in a given pool of applicants rather than reflecting a curatorial thesis regarding style, theory or cultural context. Diverse aesthetic practices compete for attention, forcing the viewer to don visual and intellectual blinders to move from one body of work to the next. The 2009-10 McKnight show is no exception, yet it's well worth the trip.