In a recent issue of the New Yorker a writer, speaking of a show designed by Charles Ray, suggests that “artist-curated shows are like ontological propositions: are they conceptual extensions of the artists’ work or installation “objects” in themselves?” InWords might be read as a little bit of both–a recognition of artists and ideas that I think are important, but also, if not a Tower of Babel, then at least a hall of gurgle, stuttering, and starts and fits. The show comes out of small epiphanies and empathies. It comes from trying to experience a lot of work over the last decade. As an artist, looking for things to help me with my own practice, and as a teacher, looking for things that don’t fit into pre-established canonical categories I might be carrying around with me. Perhaps most importantly, the show develops out of the constant search for that creative “family” (they can, luckily, be dead or alive) that all artists seek to feel like they are having a discussion in a discipline that can feel very solitary and isolated. InWords, then, transcribes a bit of this conversation.
It is the job of Art Historians to draw connections– to make us understand how one thing might influence another. And it is probably also part of their job to remain true to history and intent. The studio artist makes connections as well, fitting pieces of history and the contemporary world together to form a story that they tell themselves about their work, but they usually do this for more selfish reasons–because it interests them more than the truth, to help them critically look at their work and, perhaps, to justify their art in light of a “post-historical”(1) art-world devoid of clear ways to define success. Artists have been allowed to take greater liberties with the trajectory of history and culture, to paste things together that may or may not make sense, and, as long as the thinking ends in provocative works of art, no one wonders how they might have made such unsubstantiated links. As Dave Hickey, speaking about the difference between “bureaucratic surveillance and autocratic punishment,” claims in The Invisible Dragon, “They (the autocratic gallery world) value images that promise pleasure and excitement. Those that keep their promise are admitted into the presence of the court; those that fail are subjected to the “king’s justice…But there is another side to this coin, since art dealers are also like Foucault’s king in that they do not care “what it means.” Thus radical content has traditionally flourished under the auspices of this profound disinterest.”(2) You can understand a certain trepidation when someone who has been allowed to make radical, almost unconsciable jumps in their work must present their thinking through curation.
While “artists working with words” might seem the easy link between the artists included in InWords, it is the way that the group works with text that suggested an alternate history of language-based-art to me. Traditionally art with words has fallen into the conceptual, anti-object mode of reading about an idea (think Yoko Ono’s “poem” paintings or Baldessari’s canvas with “everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work” written on it) or was based out of the world of advertising and consumer culture (something ascribed to the movement we know as “Pop,” which seems to blanket anyone who ever appropriated images, but which is, perhaps, best represented by the work of Ed Ruscha, who’s ideas pervade the show, but who’s work still holds such a clear connection to reading). Coming across the work of the contemporary artists included in InWords caused me re-think the way I viewed these two paths often used to catalogue art containing text, and better yet, made me look at individual artists, rather than movements, in a fresh way that changed and enhanced my relationship to their work. John Yau claimed, in a lecture given recently at the University of Delaware, “all the interesting artists I know can give me a lineage of artists and influences, linking to one-another back to the Renaissance, that lead to their current work.” An artist like Krisanamis makes me look at someone like Jasper Johns through a new lens, and Cy Twombly demonstrates influence, far beyond the expressionism he is know for, in the work of Susanne McClelland or Holland Williams. They, and many of the other artists included in the show, allow for the kind of reverse engineering that Yau so accurately described as part of the creative pursuit, and that lets us see the history of art as a fluid conversation that continues to make room for new ideas.
The creating of a history for art (a story that tells how one thing leads to another), as I see it, is what writers would call fiction–its job is not to accurately reflect the world back to us, but to filter that world through an individual set of senses coupled with ideas about how things work. And as fiction, especially symbolic fiction, visual art seems open to greater interpretation than, say, stamp-collecting. I have tried to give myself over to the work in InWords on its terms, but I have not asked the artists what they were really thinking. I have taken great liberties in my appraisal of these artist’s intentions in order to fit them into an idea that I think might be useful. But that, in the end, is something I love about strong works of art–at times they can be so provocative that one wants to narrate them and to fold them into a bigger story.
InWords, the working (and I guess now, permanent) title for this show, reflects the way I feel about the included artists’ relationship to language. While most of the work is built out of words, the artists display a particularly personal and introspective connection to the language they work with. Nearly all of the pieces strike me as monologues, allowing the private parts of the thought process to become public. The works often reflect the surprise that we are taught to hide, the running sub-text below what is actually spoken. Our internal dialogue, for the most part, can be inherently less articulate– where we can speak a kind of sign language to ourselves; where “huh” becomes a meaningful phrase rather than the expulsion of air.
The artists in InWords share some common tendencies, often using single words or short phrases and tending towards language that is open, ambiguous, and exclamatory– a diexic language; words like “I,” “we,” “here,” that need context to be meaningful, and that, out of conversation, lose reference. The artists often use language that seems to be searching for a source, and this becomes one of the devices they use to get us to look and reflect–the missing referent of the language forces an interrogation (perhaps exemplified by something like Martin Buber’s entire philosophical text “Ich und Du”devoted to the word “I” and its relation to “It” or “Thou”(3)) of the things we thought were most certain, like person or place. Alluding to Duchamp’s influential formula that the viewer completes the work, many of the pieces in InWords actually beg the question “are you talking to me?” Several of the artists represented consider punctuation as a physical form, or, in the case of Chris Walla, the thought-bubbles that signal language. Sue Williams, who’s work I look at as a kind of graphic writing, uses images or text as a starting point for the calligraphic mark. These artists show us the elements that frame words, consistently returning to the idea that context exist in equal importance to what is being said (this is, somehow, not surprising for people who work through materials). They are not unaware of the cultural signification of the language they work with, but deny its separation from physical locale and aesthetic qualities. We are asked how our experience of meaning differs when we are holding a book, driving past a sign, or hearing a sentence from one booth over at the restaurant?
InWords attempts to give a small peak into some ways that artists use language. Not how artists speak (we all have heard “art-speak” and some wish they had not), but how artists make use of the form of language–like the kinesthetic who attaches color to words or taste to a sound, or in the way that anyone who works with images might understand text as one more form of representation that can be cut and pasted. The works included in InWords hint at the way that a studio artist might relate to the holding of one word or phrase; turning it around (literally, with a several of the artists); wondering what it actually means; giving pause so as to not simply gloss over or accept but to ask what we “actually” know versus what we think we know–or, better, how we know. Kathryn Chiong, in the essay Nauman’s Beckett Walk, suggests that “signs are born in their capacity to be repeated,” and describes how the two artists (whose thinking hovers over InWords) use repeated language and sound to slowly move us away from meaning to rhythm or form.
“It finds voice in Beckett’s and Nauman’s production, when a spoken phrase becomes a maddening refrain, when a sound begins to grate in its seeming sameness. Through these repetitions, refusing an isolated origin, Beckett and Nauman show being, so that one might have mentioned to the other, as did Estragon to Vladimir, “We always find something, eh, Didi, to give us the impression we exit.” (4)
Much of the work in InWords seems to poke and prod language in the ways described above–testing its capacity to have meaning outside of communication. Again and again, in Inwords, we see language subjected to the body and to material, forced to contend with the fact that it has to come from somewhere; that it is not just some naturally occurring phenomena like fog, but a form imbedded with intention.
One of the reasons that I look at art is to find out what and how other people think. It is not an accident that many of the pieces in InWords have a physical quality of making, a performative remains, that lets us watch the way that someone came to something. The works, and the words, are often not meant to be read in a linear, left-to-right, way but as an accumulated affect, as something happening first, then a response that ends in a form. Following Jasper Johns’ advice, “take something, do something to it, do something else to it,”(5) the artists in InWords physically work through a text until it gives them something surprising. If the work in the show can be compared to writing, it would tie most closely to the edited remains of a poem or manuscript–if we could see all the marked papers that lead to a final form; see the crossing out, the subtle change of word, the cutting and editing, and if we were able to think of that as a kind of drawing or completed sculpture that is an entirely different art object than the polished, printed poem. It is no wonder that many of the artists in Inwords, and visual artists in general, claim the influence of Samuel Beckett–who, as someone who translated his own work (mostly between French and English), left an intentional and identifiable trace of his working method–treating the book, and language, as a kind of sculptural medium that could reference past versions, and record its coming to a specific time and place. Treating Beckett’s oeuvre as a kind of complete object, we are able to watch him think through the process of making; we get to see him change his mind. Stephen Conner might best represent Beckett’s treatment of the dilemma of the artist, claiming that “The comment which the English narrator (of Mercier and Camier) makes is directed at the French narrative, and the translation makes sure that it can have no meaning except by reference to this other, absent version of the text. This is a small but telling example of the logical paradoxes which the act of self-translation is liable to generate, paradoxes which reflect Beckett’s sense of the ‘issueless predicament’ that is experience and narration”(6)…and perhaps the making of art?
The collection of work in InWords is not really intended to make a claim for a group called “artists-using-text”, but as a question which goes something like “what qualities of things make them meaningful to us?” The included artists consciously, I think, use words for their particular property as the most abstract, as they don’t look or sound like the things they describe, and yet culturally agreed upon form of communication. For most of the artists any representation would do (meaning anything translated from the real flow of space and time), but starting from something as assumed as the meaning of words allows for the greatest surprise when the word’s physical presence (its interaction with our senses) so dramatically alters its presumed “sense.” All of the artists in InWords, even those using the most transient and insubstantial material, force a physical interaction with language. They propose what would happen if this floating system (the “langue” of Semiotics) became embodied; was made to conform to a corporeal existence– if text got in our way. The included artists look at the shape of words; the literal weight of language (what if the words came to life as the actions they speak to). They treat words as matter–as an amount; as a system that has physical properties, and they suggest that, if we can no longer agree on the common meaning of things, then maybe there is some hidden meaning to discover in mass, in organization, in the secret moment where we find words that were not intended to be together. Elegantly put by Chris Walla, whose work is a part of InWords, “What is of primary interest to me as an artist now is the disjuncture between the material and the abstract. How do we perceive language when it becomes form? How do space and the rendering of that form influence our understanding of the meaning of that language?”
What if we looked at information from a different angle? Do we forget to pay attention in light of our assumptions about how we communicate? What if all the words from books left the page and piled up? How much would it weigh? What type of structures would it build? What if we could see the process by which language was formed, as in Nina Katchadourian’s “Talking Popcorn,” or the way that Erica Baum, in the guise of a kind of “word-detective,” hunts down concrete instances where language is stored and catalogued as a system rather than as a communication? Tony Hepburn puts language on an axis and sets it spinning, forcing language into dimensionality, while Ken Fandell literally “turns a phrase” in virtual space. Janet Zweig’s “thanks a million” actualizes the saying, forcing us to confront bodily what we so easily utter, and Abby Donovan piles up “Some of What Don Quixote Said;” laying it out there for us to interrogate–what is in all these words, could the amount be more relevant than the syntactical meaning? Is language, as Krisamis proposes, its own galaxy of the insides of different “O’s”, or a viral-like growth, as personified in Carson Fox’s flower arrangements that hint at a horribly unnatural nature? Many of the artists in InWords seem to make a concerted attempt to pull language out of its abstract space and rules. They work to deflate and ground the systems that are used so constructively to pass along ideas and opinions (to “spin”-as described in politics) so that we may pause to consider words as so-much-material that can be reformed to fit different needs. In doing this, many of the pieces included in the show make us aware of the structure of representation, and force us to consider its implications. If language is just another social agreement, and not some inherent truth, then who decides how it get used? Which suggests why many of the pieces that are part of InWords initially grab our attention through humor, but also hint at darker uncertainties that tie to humor’s more nihilistic cousin–the absurd. When you start looking at things you once took for granted, it is hard to stop.
In using, and sometimes abusing, language the artists in InWords create an alternative trajectory through contemporary art. The artists look, without simplistic distinction, at the physical world as a set of properties that they can use to develop new things in that world. There is a clear nod to the “Pop” artists who pulled from culture, disregarding ideas of “high and low” visual material, and who used the things around them to create new forms. At a time where text had become so publicly prevalent in the form of signs, advertising, and promotion, it is not a leap that this material would be included in the mass of information that these artists were filtering through. Many of the artists in InWords move past the simple pulling and reproducing of the current sea of images, and deeply consider the act of making as a language in itself. The works in InWords were largely selected on the basis that their method of fabrication was at least as important to the art’s outcome as the language that was chosen. In this way, I think the collected group of artists distinguish themselves from previous categories of production, and develop a thinking that can be complicated and expansive. It is something that I have been describing to myself as “the generative.” This concept expands well outside of art that uses language, though something about the art using text in Inwords frames the discussion particularly well, and it suggests why the work in this show is tethered to the work of three deeply established artists.
Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and Brice Marden have all been linked to important developments in the history of art (abstract expressionism, pop, and minimalism respectively). All had an uneasy relationship to their categorization, and all subsequently demonstrated that their creative vision was tied to things other than what was initially discussed as most relevant in their work. They have had sustained creative careers that reflect rigorous commitment to a way of thinking, and, to me, they all use information to get to sensation–i.e. “generate” physical objects by responding to an initial set of conditions. Perhaps it is best expressed by Johns in an interview, “Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets–things the mind already knows. That give me room to work on other levels.” (7) We cannot know exactly what “other levels” Johns speaks of, but he seems to hint that he uses things (they seem equally filled with and devoid of meaning) to divide the picture plane so that he can move on to issues distinctly different from the symbolic. Erica Baum, a conceptual photographer, who’s physical production could not be farther from John’s textural brush-work, hints at similar intentions when she describes her methodology, “the fictions that I create draw attention to the other meanings and imaginary worlds that coexist within already existing structures. There is a tension between what is absent - the source - and what is present - the concatenation of sounds and meanings constructed towards a new fiction, at once suggestive of the original reference but now independent of it as well. Attention is drawn to the different visual (my stress) elements within these artifacts, such as varieties of layout, typeface, handwriting and random markings.” Twombly’s expressive scribbling of text and Marden’s sweep of calligraphy against the edge of the canvass suggest that they, too, are interested in issues beyond conventional communication.
One of the ways we have traditionally been taught to understand visual art is to divide it into “form” and “content.” The “form” being the vessel that held the “content”, which was what we were supposed to “get”. An easy way to think of it is through a book that holds pages of text–you don’t read the book (its scale, color, weight, etc.) you read the words that it contains. The art that is included in InWords reflects the slow collapse of these distinctions that is part of the narrative of the twentieth and now the twenty-first century. Most popularly represented by McLuhan’s proclamation “the medium is the message,”(8) the pressing question of the “Information Age” comes down to, what counts as information? The artists in InWords use text as a way to return us to our senses. The works allow us to position ourselves in a literal relation to meaning, and suggest that everything in our contemporary world cannot be solved like an equation. And while it could be inferred that the group is skeptical of understanding the world as information (hence the “absurdity” hinted at before), I tend to look at the art in Inwords as a celebration of other kinds of sense that add dimension to our experience.
So–if we are, as claimed, literarily illiterate (meaning that we no longer read or gain understanding from long, complicated novels) and we are visually illiterate (meaning that we no longer are made to understand the codification of visual material passed down from the renaissance) then where do we find meaning? Is communication possible? And if so, where or how does it happen? Somewhere, in the current conditions, language becomes just another sensory material; not something that we necessarily read for comprehension, simply something that conveys information as quickly and simply as possible. And in the virtual where language and image are so easily combined into a single entity, at a speed that does not allow for anything but reception, McLuhan’s claim about the medium becomes particularly poignant. The works included in InWords do not so much answer the question “how do we find meaning now,” as lay out the information in front of us. The pieces ask us to confront the difficulty and humor of social meaning. The work in InWords seems important to me, at this specific moment (it has probably been happening as long as language has existed…), when so many are working so hard to use language to simplify. When words like “life” or “choice” seem to go so unexamined. When it seems like we are so certain what “life” is; or “choice;” or “patriotic.” At a time when words are used as a vehicle to gain consensus rather than a tool for dialogue, these artists ask for complication. By slowing language down, by changing its scale, by putting it in our way, these artists ask us what qualities of communication we find to be most meaningful. Is it social? Is it a tool? Is it aesthetic, as some would claim with science, where ideas that have been around for a long time finally find an equation so elegant that they are accepted? Are we affected by the way letters are designed? Does the way a thing was made matter? Should it be funny? Do we care about the time put into an idea?
I would like to thank everyone who helped make the show possible. The staff I worked with at the University of Delaware Gallery–Jan Broske (curator) and Brian Kamen (preparator)–for their help and effort in realizing this idea. And special thanks to Janis Tomlinson, the Director of the University Museums, who took the risk to extend the invitation, and Lorena Baines, fantastic graduate student, who was infinitely patient and did an amazing job of tying my floating thoughts to reality–both Janis and Lorena put tremendous time, energy, and insight into the project (certainly they could not have known what they were getting into when they so generously threw out the words “would you curate a show of contemporary art?). Finally, and of course, I want to thank the artists that agreed to participate in InWords. There is no proper way to end such an investigation, and artists are revealed every day that “fit” the parameters set for the show, but this particular group of artists reflects a sort of journey through art galleries over the last several years that form the seed of this show. They became part of a somewhat ambiguous and unnamable idea that I carried around with me and have done my best to make some sense of with InWords. And there are not words that can express my appreciation for their continued pursuit of art and sending this stuff into the world so that we can continue to wonder. Finally, enough of these kinds of words (whew…you say silently to yourself).
1. Arthur Danto, in “After the End of Art” develops the idea of the “post-historical” which speaks to the difficulty of seeing any clear lineage or “ism’s” for the artist to work against or from. In the post-historical, the artist must develop a history that they can then critically engage in and place their work in relation to.
2. Dave Hickey. The Invisible Dragon, “enter the dragon: on the vernacular of beauty” p.16 Art Issues? 1994.
3. Martin Buber.
4. October 87. M.I.T. Press p.66
5. Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews . Museum of Modern Art. Edited by Kirk Varnedoe. ~Compiled by Christel Hollevoe
6. Stephen Conner. Samuel Beckett: repetition, theory, and text. p.96
7. Jasper Johns by Michael Crighton
8. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Paperback)
9. There was a great conversation on “”, a talk-radio show, where the person being interviewed said that “they (the Religious Right) took the word “life”, which stirs greater emotion in people, and that the Left’s use of “choice” just doesn’t command the same type of commitment, and that “choice” is also a little seedy as it has been tied to consumerism.