The intersection of language and visual form provides both the tools and the subject of conceptual art. “WORD: Text in Contemporary Art” at the Jamestown Arts Center offers over 55 images, objects and installations contrasting canonical works with recent forays in the art-form. While concentrating on artists in southern New England, curator Karen Conway has also tapped collectors, galleries and artist studios in New York and the Midwest. Voyages at an end as well as explorations underway complement each other in the spacious former boat repair shop through early August.
The works of the earlier conceptualists, like words in Scrabble, attract clusters of new invention. We see Lesley Dill and May Stevens appropriating texts of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf to explore forms of verbal symbolizing. Glen Ligon uses stenciled black-and-white surfaces to articulate the ironies of racial stereotyping. Jenny Holzer still taunts us with polarizing claims in her broadsides, lists and placards, while Barbara Kruger subverts advertising layouts to critique exploitative and sexist slogans.
Joseph Kosuth’s photocopied dictionary definitions and diagrams give us headaches about the inconsistencies between descriptive image, physical object and linguistic denotation. “Forms of Water” differentiates between the substance itself, the “transparent” operations of verbal descriptions of physical transformations of this substance. Our manipulations of the word “water” as signifier is governed not by physical laws but by grammatical rules and usages.
Concrete poet Ed Schlossberg follows his own rules for using the dictionary. In “C and D, Series Word: Nerve,” he selects words with 20 definitions or more. He sorts them alphabetically, then emblazons word-lists on sheets of Plexiglas hung from rolling garment racks. Each list is a poem linking moods by first letters.
“Glossolalia,” a collaboration by Scherer & Ouporov, occupies a modest closet off the main gallery. Suspended within are tall transparent rows of scrim hangings silkscreened with white six-inch letters. The words, printed in both Cyrillic and Roman letters, lack discernible relationship. But pronouncing them out loud, we hear the repeated syllable “om” (“womb” occurs twice). Let’s remember that in many sacred rituals and meditation in Eastern cultures, uttering this sound is the gateway to spiritual awareness.
Kevin Veronneau’s free-floating captions seek to lasso “reality.” “WE ARE LIVING IN DARK TIMES” beams a deep indigo slash of neon from a dim stairwell as from the ocean depths. Another sign inwhite-on-white whispers “ENLIGHTENMENT” to those looking overhead.
Word-sculptor Lesley Dill praises the life of poetry and poets, letter by letter. Dill’s embroidered textiles and wall-mounted animal puppets stud the walls, all covered with texts from Emily Dickinson and Tom Sleigh. Emily Dickinson andVoices of her Time, a paper mural, vibrates in a spasmodic jumble of type fonts, cases, colors and sizes. Side-by-side declarations by Dickinson, her editor, James Higginson, and her doppelganger, the abolitionist Sojourner Truth are, in a double sense, “letters to the world.”
Sculptor Robin Crocker also makes poetry a concrete love. Her knee-high plywood bowl, gilded with flashes of carmine, unwinds the lettering of E. E. Cummings’ poem, “Whatifamuchofawhichofawind” in a breathless spiral. Viewers must puzzle out the words, reading shadows backwards or imagining ourselves and whirling with the wind.
Jessica Rosner unsteadily cross-stitches colorful musings onto linen doilies. Her extensive jottings of conversations on vintage textbook pages, along with exclamations, cross-outs, doodles, and comments, hint at an adolescent’s shifting passions — anger, innocence and mourning.
Maira Kalman’s comic map of “NewYorkistan,” which appeared on a New Yorker cover three months after the September 11 attacks, reminded us to laugh again. The faux-Arabic names identifying New York neighborhoods in this early sketch still raise a chuckle.
Military irony emerges in “Shock and Awe” by Tom Culora, Dean of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Six pastel “TV screens” frame rapt and screaming fans-of children, teenagers, women, and old men at the Beatles’ 1963 American debut on Ed Sullivan. Captions below of “awe” and “shock” slowly fuse into the code name for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 (also widely televised).
Collage permits Gail Wells Mandle to straddle narrative and abstraction in “Susquehanna.” Layered surfaces of scavenged ledgers and torn cloth, painted, lettered over and re-layered conceal the arching bridge and ripples of mottled water. A delicate script, intact, reminisces about growing up along these now-decayed riverbanks.
Diane Barcelo’s collaged paintings integrate her father’s tales of life in Cuba with maps of torn copper foil and words twisted from copper wire. In “Rescue,” the copper sheet covers land and coast. The empty space of the Caribbean basin is painted blue, with Cuba’s copper curl floating at center. “Exit” is the reverse: the waste piece of copper is water, meeting the now-painted continent and island at the identical edge.
Collage and language join as one for Lalla Essaydi, a Moroccan-born artist who uses large-format Polaroid photography to address female identity in Islamic culture. In “Converging Territories # 29,” the photograph becomes “glue” for a virtually seamless merging of clothed bodies painted with Arabic calligraphy, with similar patterns painted onto floor-to-wall backdrops. The script camouflages women’s individuality and renders them invisible in this environment.
It’s easy for us to perceive these images as representing the domination of masculinized language, customs and culture in the Arab world. But might not similar forces and characteristics within our own culture and language be capable of distorting, dominating, and subjugate our freedoms? We need to watch out for our own futures. Let’s hope art will lead the way.
Text in Contemporary Art opens June 30 and continues through August 13, 2017, at the JamestownArts Center, 18 Valley St., Jamestown, Rhode Island. For more information, call (401) 560-0979.
Elizabeth Michelman, Artscope Magazine
Saturday, July 1, 2017