Hovering high above the heads of visitors to the Figge Art Museum, a neon sign that reads “Colored Entranced” points the way into the third-floor gallery. Anchored to the wall, the sign sits at an angle so visitors who enter from either the elevator or the stairs see it almost immediately. Bright tubes of clean red-orange light form words that contrast with and illuminate the corroded tin support from which they extend. The glow of the neon affects the surrounding space by casting light in shades of pink and violet on the white walls. A ghostly reflected image with deep red and cobalt-blue hues can be seen on the polished gray floor.

Colored Entranced is visually appealing, but the symbolic history it represents is abhorrent. Seeing it for the first time, non-black visitors may feel an unexpected pang of empathy for those who were subjected to that kind of direct segregation.

It is as if a Jimi Hendrix concert outfit collided and merged with great-grandma's doily and potholder collection in the 2009 Soundsuit by Nick Cave, part of the exhibition Innovators & Legends: Generations in Textiles & Fiber that runs through September 7 at the Figge Art Museum.

Recently at the Quad City International Airport art gallery, two travelers were bluntly musing about twisting sculptures cantilevered off the display wall. "Normally, this would be considered a pile of crap," one said.

Tree house, snow fort, doll house, sand castle - most of us enjoyed playing with some kind of architecture as a child. The exhibition Questionable Architecture, by Terry Rathje in collaboration with Steve Banks and Monica Correia, unleashes a whiff of that joy for viewers with fanciful structures that appeal as sophisticated art forms.

Marlene Miller, 'Girl 1'A museum patron expects to find informative signage near an artwork., including biographical information about the artist, a description of the piece's historical context, or critical acclaim. Instead, the placard near the Marlene Miller sculpture Girl 1 - currently on display in the Figge Art Museum's Waxing Poetic show - reads: "what gestates in the roots unseen / reveals herself as tall on the inside / grown whole-sprung from a trunk / full of well manners & bluest eyes / puzzled by where she comes from."

This pairing of a visual work with a poem highlights how we assign meaning to art. In his words, Ryan Collins captures the literal appearance of the work- referencing the tree trunk, the girl's intensely blue eyes, and her polite but befuddled posture and expression.

But it also reads the sculpture. "Grown whole-sprung" and "tall on the inside" refer to the aged and androgynous face, contrasted with the child's body: The texture of the head is chunky and scratchy, as opposed to the smoothness of the body. Collins imagines the sudden appearance of this creature, enhancing our view of it without dictating a specific interpretation.

The exhibit - running through October 7 - is less about the artworks as stand-alone objects than about the process of inferring meaning. In addition to artworks matched with poetry in specific response to them, viewers are invited to create their own written reactions. At the center of the exhibit is a writing table with pens and paper, and under each work is a hanging packet of collected visitor responses. The technologically inclined are prompted to Tweet their responses to designated hashtags.

David Plowden, 'Bean Field & House, Grundy County, Iowa 2003'

Iowa is hardly renowned for dramatic landscape or architecture. One can drive for miles with no sign of life other than a road and a tilled field.

Bean Field & House, Grundy County, Iowa 2003 by photographer David Plowden dramatically depicts such a bare scene. Roughly 80 percent of the composition is sky, with sparse, fluffy clouds. At the bottom is a strip of dark land, with rows of crops running to the horizon. On the left side is a boxy house, which becomes an interesting subject when framed by the immense sky. The lines of beans bring the viewers' eyes upward, emphasizing the void. The tininess of the house in the picture makes the viewer feel diminutive.

Plowden's composition illustrates that the beauty of Midwestern scenery often lies in its grand simplicity, and how that alters the sense of scale. The stark flatness of the land, only occasionally punctuated by trees or farm buildings, shifts our field of vision; the sky begins to seems bigger, and everything on the ground becomes smaller.

David Plowden's Iowa (at the Figge Art Museum through August 26) masterfully captures the scale-warping effects of the landscape, and the photographer's 47 images of rural and small-town Iowa ably document the Midwestern agricultural aesthetic.

But he also manipulates and confuses viewers' perceptions - of size, distance, plainness, and even time - through artistic tools such as juxtaposition, viewing angle, and lack of context.

Works by Elizabeth Shriver and Diane Naylor

The phrase "the elephant in the room" is a metaphor for the obvious things we choose to ignore. In The Great White Elephant, Diane Naylor treats those words literally to explore our often contradictory, yet rarely acknowledged, relationship with the animal kingdom. Naylor's work presents our simultaneous tendency to idealize and dominate nature.

The painting is part of the current show - featuring 57 pieces by three local artists and running through April - at the Quad City Arts gallery inside the Quad City International Airport. Naylor's work is narrative and analytical, which creates a well-rounded exhibit when combined with the art of Elizabeth Shriver and Louise Rauh, who address nature with a focus on form rather than concept.

Jessica Teckemeyer, 'Fawn or Foe'

Jessica Teckemeyer's Fawn or Foe is both a cuddly creature and a disturbing monster, with a lifelike aura that defies the porcelain from which it's formed. In this year's Rock Island Fine Arts Exhibition, the piece stands out as a strong marriage of technique and subtext.

Similarly, Kristin Quinn's Flyway offers a modern sensibility and expression that differentiate it from an exhibition full of technical skill yet often lacking stylistic flair, nuance, and ambiguity.

While those two works are exceptional, there's also a strong vein of realism in the show, and several artists conjure meaning through an abstract approach - but without quite reaching the resonant standard set by Teckemeyer and Quinn.

Featuring 51 pieces by 40 artists within a 150-mile radius of the Quad Cities, the 36th-annual exhibit is on display in Centennial Hall at Augustana College through April 22. Juror Joseph Mella, the director of the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee, awarded prizes sponsored by the Rock Island Art Guild and Augustana College.

Abe Lincoln Enters Coles County, IllinoisArtists use certain visual cues to make a portrait feel heroic: bright, clear lighting, a low viewing perspective, strong or kind facial expressions, adoring masses, flying flags. These techniques cast the subject as trustworthy, powerful, and revered.

This is not how Charles Turzak did it. The print Abe Lincoln Enters Coles County, Illinois at first glance seems a traditional heroic portrait. A younger Lincoln stands in the center of the composition. The distant clouds appear to part behind his head, giving the effect of a halo and drawing our eyes to his face. He leans slightly to the left, muscles taught, in a pose seemingly moments away from action. He clutches an axe. His open collar, bare feet, and rolled-up sleeves suggest a hard-working everyman.

Enrique Chagoya (American, born in Mexico 1953); 'The Headache,' after 'The Headache' by George Cruikshank, circa 1830, 2010; etching and chine collé; museum purchase.

Graphic Language: The Art & Literature of Comics (on display at the University of Iowa) traces the origins of comics, from the evolution of graphic style alongside printing technologies to their conceptual roots in satire and serialized short fiction. This path is well-defined through the chronological presentation of the works around the perimeter of the exhibit, and the inclusion of early images that are not yet "comics" yet were clear stepping stones for the medium.

Additionally, Graphic Language highlights the craft and technique of the individual comic artists. When converting hand-crafted images to reproduced prints, the subtle gestures of the hand of the artist are often lost. The original works, up to twice as large as their printed counterparts, show these subtleties. The explanatory labels and signage emphasize this point, and note the individual craft behind a usually mass-produced and commoditized medium.

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