In a world surfeited with numbers, letters and images, artists Justin Quinn and Luke Aleckson have gone back to basics. For Quinn, basic is the capital letter "E" endlessly repeated in myriad formats. For Aleckson it's gnarly wood slabs and a box like those wooden cubes that gift-stumped relatives proffer at holidays.

With these basic forms, they have cooked up a pair of solo shows at the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), an artist-run program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, through Sept. 30.

Familiarity aside, these are odd shows -- hermetic, self-absorbed and obscure in that over-caffeinated-and-can't-stop-intellectualizing way that tends to induce eye-rolling among art-world veterans. You've got to (sort of) admire the earnestness of it all, but the pretensions are irksome. Quinn's prints, drawings and collages -- the more successful of the two -- have an intriguing literary undercurrent that buttresses their awkward glamour. Aleckson's constructions are elaborately explained but pretty much unintelligible.

Justin Quinn

'Deeper Wonders Than the Waves'

Used metaphorically, the "E" is a great shape, sturdy and versatile. Flip it sideways and it's a table or an animal. Line or stack a bunch and they become bricks, buildings, ladders, pavers, mazes and other architectural features. Add "!" to a string of them and you've got a horror-story emotive.

Quinn adapts his E's to myriad purposes in drawings, collages, prints and little paintings, mostly in monochrome tones of black-on-white, silver-on-black and so on. His designs are based on passages from literature in which he has counted each character and replaced it with the letter "E" while retaining the spacing between words and paragraphs as well as some of the punctuation. Thus many of his drawings look like text even through they're unintelligible, among them two "Moby Dick" notebooks and a wall grid of 166 pages that suggest a disassembled book. Composed entirely of E's, it starts with title page, index and so on, but then gradually erupts into a cacophony of loops, ragged columns, cascades, knots and ribbons as though the book's plot, too, might have reached an explosive climax.

Other drawings suggest aerial maps of suburban cul de sacs, coiled strings of DNA, computer circuit boards and other dense networks of information whose meaning is lost to non-initiates. There's an obvious overlap here with the "shaped" poetry of early 20th-century symbolists, and MAEP coordinator Christopher Atkins notes an amusing relationship between Quinn's work and that of the late Georges Perec, a French multimedia artist who removed all the E's from his novel "A Void."

The strange poetry of Quinn's imagery is curiously affecting. By stripping the E from its context and cloaking familiar texts in a shroud of nonsense, he has rendered his native tongue as exotic as hieroglyphics.

Luke Aleckson

'UNPAC (Uniform Non-coding Parallax Autostereogrammic Cyclopti-cryptograms)'

Aleckson's shock-and-awe title grasps at a profundity that his constructions don't deliver. His centerpiece is a hollow wooden cube, about 8 feet square, with lopped-off corners, designed to suggest a solid 3-D puzzle. A pocket-sized version of the cube sits nearby on an ankle-height pedestal. Four wall-installations surround the cube, each consisting of several slabs of plywood gouged and stained with abstract patterns in taupe and red. The smallest are palm-sized, the largest about 8 feet long. Their odd, computer-generated shapes look sliced from the same board and could probably be stacked into a "log" of some sort.

According to the exhibition brochure, the shapes are a "burr puzzle" that when properly piled would look like a prickly seed pod. On that modest germ of an idea, Aleckson and MAEP coordinator Atkins, with a little help from a French philosopher, build a Rube Goldberg tower of speculation about history (it's a pleated tapestry or landscape rather than a timeline -- duh), coded messages, utopian cyberspace and so on.

Nothing in the gallery encourages such high-minded theorizing. Rather, the enterprise was nicely summed up recently by a pre-teen boy who glanced around as he sauntered through and then announced to no one in particular. "Hey, it's a big box."

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