Text As Fine Art Signage

by Carolina Wheat

"Holy Shit" and "Hell Yes!" are two exclamations embedded in my vocabulary after a weekend excursion to NYC during the Armory hoopla. Luckily, more t-shirt ready text saturated my vision over the course of a few monumental contemporary art shows, since December.  I've discovered that text has taken a stand, wondering if these words' meanings are more significant super-sized as fine art or neon.   Catchy spoken phrases, kooky affirmations, signage or obscure references to artists' personal ploys are everywhere. Plenty of catchy phrases spread thickly across white walls.  Signs have become blaringly prevalent in our practice of everyday consumerism, and are now flourishing in our galleries. These quick-fix statements are palpable to a third grader however connotations abound when placed between paintings and sculptures.  Perhaps all of this in-your-face text work is for two different audiences:  those that simply read quickly and walk by, or those that peer closer to interpret the linguistic art.
 I left New York in March, contemplating text's current bold and decipherable place in the visual dialogue and question the creator as an artist and as author simultaneously. I'm still thinking about it, two months later, anxious to see what Art Chicago may bring.  My journal and pen is charged with finding the most specific denotation where a contemporary viewer can simply read works of art compared to the viewer who reads into the artists' connotations.

        The first day in NYC I awoke early, rushing for controversy. Ugo Rondinone's flashy rainbow "Hell Yes!" sign recreated from 2001, greeted me high on the façade of the blocky 5 story titanium build in the Bowery as I approached the New Museum. All pedestrians for blocks, can read 'Hell Yes' in its gayest rainbow glory.   I looked up; I was giddily affirmed that this was the right place. I thought 'Welcome', I thought,  'hell yes' to the space, 'hell yes' to the show inside, despite a current critical reputation and it's cramped goodness. (There is tough-talk around Joannou's role as a trustee of the museum, over crowdedness, the museum's conflict of interest and potential devaluing of the work exhibited.)  Whatever you read or hear, the show is worth seeing.

        Inside, the Jeff Koons' curated 'collector's' exhibit entitled Skin Fruit peeled before my eyes. Mr. Koons singular piece in the show, "One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank" 1985 was the first in Joannou's infamously large collection and its unintended off-center 'Spalding' personality is prominently displayed on the second floor as we exited the elevator. Its label and placement commands the floor.  Just beyond, Dan Colen's "Holy Shit" (Mirror) 2006, is seemingly spray-painted in fluorescent pink on plywood with a white acrylic base. His painstaking attention to craft is quickly over looked to the novice, assuming that the painting was done with an aerosol canister instead of a brush.  You could even buy a T-shirt print of it, in the gift shop.

        Around the corner, an older than middle aged woman poised as a security guard operatically belts out "This is propaganda, you know, you know. This is Propaganda by Tino Sehgal, 2002.'" The title "This is Propaganda" Tino Sehgal 2002 was unsung at every end.  Her pitch and cadence in the gallery was exquisite, yet over the work of Mauricio Cattallan's "All" 2007, it was haunting.  The melody's reverb demanded attention in the high ceilings as Sehgal's planted lyricist sang.   As guests entered the gallery a melodic ten-second segment would resonate.  The tune is still stuck in my head.  Knowing the guerrilla performance tactics of Sehgal, this piece becomes alive amongst the collection; however, one may not even realize its non-recorded verbal syncopation or the real time interaction with on-lookers.  The work is immediately accessible without inspection.  It is legible, yet the gist is seemingly tucked away, waiting for critical examination, combined with larger than life contemporary figurative sculpture by Charles Ray, David Altmejd, Kiki Smith, and the collaborative team of Tim Noble and Sue Weber. Over 100 pieces are displayed in Skin Fruit. Here lie creations that I have only seen in jpeg images, magazines or in 'history' books.  I felt fabulously satisfied experiencing Joannou's delicacies and symbols of ego. I became more open to the idea of being a collector, and investing in text-based art that effects me.  Perhaps hung as signage in my home, likely interpreted as an epitaph while living.  Words strike a meaningful chord to readers but when their connotative meaning sticks with you, they can transform you.

    At planet Armory, Doug Aitkin's newish light box series is another starting point where in-your-face language is an obvious player in texts' rampant usage as fine art. More words/works like "STAR" 2008 and "disappear" 2006 glowed in the aisles at Armory (this year and last, as well as Miami Basal)  containing imagery of illuminated photographic landscapes. The literal reflection of urban lights in a valley, overlooking a grided L.A. landscape, as it reads "STAR".  What an attractive pun. In "disappear", nine light boxes present an expansive desert with a fleet of planes poking the sky at the flat horizon.  These one-word signs shine with poignant layers of environmental consequence.

        Ryan Gander's work at the Tokyo based Taro Nasu gallery contained a demolished Neon piece.  Obscure, broken words, originally formed in glass tubes dangled from wires, hung on the wall a foot from the floor.  The title placard gently read "The danger in visualizing your own end." 2010. Pieces of tubing and sharp glass shards were scattered along the carpet.  Un-illuminated and impossible to read, its intention is nearly spiritual. Admiring the didactic destruction coupled with the various well-behaved kids running around the fair's floor, I smiled upon the idea but feared the consequence.  My eyes rolled as a visitor stopped to ask the attendant, "So, did the artist mean to do that, I mean break it like that?"  "Yes." She answered with a 'duh' tone. Confirming its cleverly indirect message, because it was illegible, it became invalid to the casual viewer although touching when examined closer.

         Large wooden dice pieces taunted youngsters to interact at the gallery space opposite the aisle.  The space was 4'X 10' and the installation was entitled "Come On In" 2010 at Ingleby Gallery's booth.  At about eight feet high, 15 neon signs read "Little by little" in courier font in the 'most popular' colors starting with white.   Neon light surrounded the viewer as Peter Liversedge's concise 3-sentence proposal to the gallery was typed in courier font, framed and hung in the center of the wall in the space. The director and owner, Richard Ingleby tossed the dice every morning during the week of the show and left the fortune for its guests to read. The lighthearted spectacle highlights the baby steps of thoughtful transformation of one's consciousness.  Here, from the presentation of Liversedge's proposal, to the repetition of expression, and ultimately the successful accomplishment of landing the gig.

    Also tempting the viewer to detect meaning in text was Richard Prince's "After Dark" 2010 wall installation.  Prince's assemblage includes a collection of unread soft-porn, novellas, and pulp fiction from all cultures (many translated to English) which were placed alphabetically by author. Each book entitled "After Dark".  The soft covers are arranged on one twelve-foot shelf. An enclosed bookcase with most bindings and occasional covers exposed which revealed illustrations of flesh and nightly pleasures.  One catch, the viewer could not take them from the shelf as if in a library or home.  Again, easily compiled as a collection an observer could imprudently bypass for simply clever work, Prince's latest piece is an internationally desegregated collection of research with a presentation that pokes at appropriation, authorship and perverted musings. NYC's Gagosian Gallery showed Prince's paintings, same title, August 2009.  Perhaps the research for that show has become this exquisite installation. Deeply explicit and sexy, the cultural implications created less amusement and more promiscuous apprehension.

        As a guru of text since the 60's, Mel Bochner also had a few of his most recent monoprints on handmade paper at Two Palms gallery.  They read "Just Shut the Fuck Up" 2010, "Silence" 2010 and "Crazy" 2010 presented as a hand slain thesaurus.  Bochner's bold, abrasive demands and judgments gave the onlooker a rapid defense of humor yet could be intrinsically destructive to me, or to any collector who could view the brash vocabulary daily.  Sure, he had other more positive affirmations, yet my mind twisted imagining possessing an expression with a denotation of 'shut the fuck up'.  I pounced, tearing a paper tiger like a cheerleader at the beginning of a college football game, I broke through my fear and I assured myself that its tongue and cheek value would go to a collector that had no concern about the 'law of attraction.'

            More self-introspection and insecurities were legibly displayed in Sean Lander's 2-d work at the Andrea Rosean Gallery. The paintings enumerate the artist's scathing inner-dialogue yet are refined images of textural painted text. Carefully composed, they were visually pleasing from afar, yet the approach was telling. (Often his funny phrases and cheeky remarks are obscured and even mock himself, the artist, in a reversal of self-aggrandizing language.) For instance, "Stunned" from 2005 reading in all caps, in smeared blurry white paint stated 'Stunned that he's Age-ing a 42 year old artist stares at his black canvas as struggling for some-thing to write that doesn't refer to death.' Immediately obvious, his work, or he is the subject of anxious decisions, apprehensive mark making and timid confidence. The body of work is seemingly conflicted, yet the artist is conceptually saving himself from scrutiny.  Laying it all out for the public, the self-defacement becomes a ploy in his vast body of text-based discoveries.

        I left the Armory stitched with words, lastly coming from the buxom Tracy Emin entitled, "I Keep Believing in You" 2009 embroidered on a scrappy sheet with affixed dollar store plastic flowers.  Yes, I could easily lie in bed with this language, yet do I want to make the bed when I get up?  Interpreting her self-loathing relationship with men based on her previous work, I walked away from this statement feeling less empowered and more depressed. It's similar to my mood after experiencing the Dan Attoe neon room at Miami Basal in December.  Sentences like:  "No one cares about your body", "Eat shit and die" or "I am stealing your ideas" aggressively engaged the reader without subtlety. Approaching neon is like walking into a bug zapper.   Passing by reading it was attractive; yet, no one gives a shit about the perfect form, really. I felt the pulse of electric death.

        I admit, "No One Cares About Your Body" has haunted me since I last saw it, because it relates.  Does a potential collector beg for a profound statement to be more legible to its eminent audience? Would I buy this and present it over my mirrors, in the kitchen or over the dining room table?  It could sanction consumption or it could cause insecurities. I hope my doctor cares about my body, damn, I hope my lover cares about my body, shit, I better care about my body.  Insert ten pushups here.  Such a statement could be an epitaph for someone suffering from an eating disorder or it could be a reminder to not be so vein and enjoy your time on earth.  I find myself transfixed observing that self pre-occupation is futile and really, no one gives a shit about my body, my hair nor my miniscule phobias.  So, yeah, I'd buy it.

            At Volta, NY there was a gory psudo-neon acrylic glass tube that pumped red silicon oil transcribing, "Caught in a stream of immanence" by Austrian artist, Markus Leitsche.   This allusion to neon oozes blood where the glowing gas would illuminate; consistently reminding the passerby that text can trail the reader without approach.  Difficult to decipher, even an English reader, must inspect the title to see the intended letters.  And coupled with his blonde cowhide throw rug floor sculpture of a reclined figure suggestively under the animal's skin, it was a morbid reminder of eventual death. Within the limits of knowledge, as powerful as the word immanence would suggest, the work's command in the space was rousing.  As in previous passages of text that stirred me throughout the weekend, it was a potentially serving piece of writing that encapsulated a way of being, a way of living.

        I was also touched by Skylar Fein's "I Was, I Am, and Shall Be" 2009 sign and how it fit neatly inside a varnished wood triangle with arrows jutting out atop the booth belonging to a New Orleans gallery, Prospect 1. With signage screaming at me about buying meat and dry goods, the paint on slate created a shady version of an American flag. I was hooked.  It was as if one was standing in line at the deli, reading the menu before ordering. Both dark canvases had hard white type, a didactical reflection on consumption and physical placement in U.S. society.

        Facing Fein's work was Cameron Platter from Cape Town, a perfect dancing partner.  His brightly colored text served as more fine art signage with a combination of text and colors that reflect some South African politics, culture, healing, and frequent calls to action.  For instance "Prince Barrack Hussein" 2010 in pencil crayon on paper is a large cluttered drawing encouraging readers to get 'honest and accurate psychic readings, karma, tarot', 'get your loved one quickly out of prison in 48 hours', 'strictly by appointment' and many more promises including herbs, quitting alcohol/drugs, and better penis functionality.  All this assistance even includes a phone number!  Also displayed was a pleasantly optimistic drawing called "Destitute" 2010 which could've served as signage for a homeless person in the best way possible.  With expressions like 'Peace', 'Love', 'Bless You', and 'Thanks Boss' cheerfully penciled in, Platter carefully chooses positive words for hopeful self-empowerment, and exhibits them vibrantly.  His vivid confidence was shared with ideas of great sorrow or collective misery, ultimately using text to steer a more satisfying outcome for those acknowledging cultural injustices.  Ah, the power of text.

        So much of the text work portrayed through out these seminal exhibits in New York City in the Beginning of March and December's Miami Basal was implied signage.  Only a few image dominant text pieces were represented, like archetypal Carrie Mae Weems, Barbara Krueger or Jenny Holzer.  Prevailing was a righteous, satisfying new text dominance that was typically political, spiritually empowering or mockingly self-deprecating. Text is on the resurgence. Getting the point across and getting the point across fast seems to be at the precipice of conceptual art.  It's blatancy, a focal point, perhaps even an overkill.  Through deliberation I methodically chose work that served as signage, either considered phrases or singular terms.  Within these selections I found expressions that follow a contemporary vocabulary whence read turn into mantras, or vocabulary that serves as a vehicle to changing one's consciousness or situation.  People buy it too.  Whether a collector desires one-word multimedia text-based work in there home, I'm convinced the passage will be read aloud or repeated upon on the wall. When the language is read everyday it becomes a habit, an intimate ritual to facilitate promises to ourselves.  Words are meaningful and phrases can change our surroundings, our attitudes and our understanding of the world. The signage we see everyday in commercial media also has a close relationship with our minds, but the wording of visual artists whom exemplify text and language within work is an investment.  I look forward to seeing what galleries at Art Chicago and NEXT bring the casual viewer and collector. Presented in a gallery, its value, especially when it strikes you, is incalculable. One can recite the words, revel in their meaning, and eventually the artwork becomes personal, it becomes us.


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  • Hmmm...no offense, but text in art has been around for a loooong time. Whether you want to go back to Ruscha, or if you're being more rigorous and looking at the first "collage" by Braque (or Picasso) in 1912. The casual reader might think your a fairly deep and complicated person, and that's certainly how you want to appear. But for the most part you're basically just relaying and parroting information predigested by the museums and galleries that's already being used to market and promote these artists. Almost none of the art you've discussed here has introduced a new idea that hasn't already been presented in the art world. And plainly, visual art has always been about what the viewer brings to the piece--the Richard Prince piece you're talking about has zero real depth or thought or imagination behind it--alphabetizing a soft-porn collection is not really a very intellectually intense (or particularly artistic) activity. To call that art is to call everybody from rare booksellers and porn shop attendants to skilled auteurs. And as far as depth and complexity, Prince's activity make the dewy decimal system look like rocket science.

    You're problem, here is that you are treating art like a fetish (in the original form). Because an object is in a gallery or museum, you extending an incredible amount of intellectual credit to the artists and galleries (without doing a whole lot of critical inquiry) and reveling in the implications and suggestions of the pieces. If you want a richer life, you might want to extend similar credit to the architecture, economic processes (as simple as buying a coffee), and civil engineering (in the form of streets, parks, etc...) that you enjoy every day. Within that context you may start to realize that most of the artists you've written about comprise the AIG's, Goldman Sachs, etc... of the art market (and all of whom far too many people extend tremendous intellectual credit based upon what otherwise are minimally interesting paintings, sculptures, and performances). Since the art market is driven by a fairly small group of uber-rich collectors (to whom the museums and galleries continue to pander with intellectually flowery language that tends to be nothing more than sound and fury) it didn't "crash" with the housing market, but I think it's only a matter of time...

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