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November 15, 2003 - January 15, 2004, at Cirrus Gallery, Downtown

by Mario Cutajar

Steve Roden, “Transmission,”
2001/02, mixed media, 66 x 66”.

Julie Zemel, "Let the Paint Run Or,"
2002, pastel/charcoal on paper, 17 x 22".

Alexandra A. Grant, "Drawing with Paper
(Reach)" (detail), 2003, wire/colored
pencil/lead drawing on paper, 122 x 80".

Todd Feldman, "Study for Diagnostic
Diagram No. 4," 2002, transfer letters
and acrylic on mylar, 9 x 12".

The word is two-faced: On the one hand, it signifies something beyond itself, a mere pointer at things and concepts that are not words. On the other, the word itself is an object--a sound, a scribble, a bit of typography--that can assume the mysterious inertness of concrete . . . or a book. Hence the longstanding preoccupation in modernist art with words as form. So it was that torn out bits of printed matter, orphaned from their original context, could become texture in cubist paintings, without, however, entirely giving up their signification. The result is a marriage of the ambiguous space that defines cubist painting with an ambiguity of content.

Historically, incessant experiments with the visual possibilities of language have ranged from those of the cubists (who, in their turn, owed something to Apollinaire's picture poems or calligrams) to art concret, to the fascination with signage and catchphrases in Pop art. Common to all is a sense of language as the primordial cultural event. Though it seems that we are born into language as fatalistically as we are born into our bodies; with sufficient detachment both body and language can register as "found" objects that lend themselves to endless play. Through a deliberate "misunderstanding" of language, a seemingly infinite range of visual double entendres issue. The word becomes fleshy. And the framing of language exposes the absurdity inherent in the human propensity for framing experience in words. Thus, the framing of language serves as a means for unframing experience--something that Buddhist meditators were already keenly aware of more than 2,000 years ago.

In putting together Painting by Letters, which showcases the works of 11 artists, Eve Wood has interpreted "letters" in the literary rather than alphabetical sense. Taking her cue from the wildly popular Drawing With the Right Side of the Brain movement spawned by the eponymous book by Betty Edwards, she focuses on artists who, as it were, draw on both sides of the brain simultaneously and who bring together not only an interest in words and images but the whole panoply of traits associated with each lobe.

Thus the works included in the show range from those of Jon Marc Edwards--whose text paintings are late additions to the concrete poetry tradition--to those of Buzz Spector, who uses books as sculpture and whose installations are complex meditations on the construction and fortification of meaning and the weight of canonical authority.

For me, the one artist in this crowd who best indicates the vast possibilities of language-derived art is Steve Roden. His inventiveness seems limitless. Beside a substantial body of audio works, he has over the years created numerous "translations"--objects that in some way or other embody the artist's response to speech, sound, or text. He has, for instance, made sculptures and drawings while listening to music with his eyes closed. He has also transformed the alphabet into sculpture by speaking into a microphone attached to a computer and translating the resulting waveforms into three-dimensional objects. The results are not always visually compelling but the process certainly is.

Julie Zemel's "translations" work on a more subtle and also more ironic level. Having inherited a complete set of Walter Foster's How to Paint magazine, she set about meticulously drawing the instructional photographs in these and other "how to" publications. Thus, without actually following the recipes in How to Make Abstract Paintings, she nonetheless abstracts the content of the book to her own ends. A related spirit of gentle subversion underlies Todd Feldman's elegant and playful collage drawings that employ transfer letters and the precise conventions of schematic drawing as the building blocks of entirely subjective diagrams. Alexandra Grant produces diagrams of a yet a different sort, drawings that seem to map the topography of the resonances between words.

The work of other artists included in this show seems to have a more tenuous connection to language. Tyler Stallings’ painted stills from video might be said to abstract from a spoken narrative but all narrative painting, by definition, does that. Mary Anna Pomonis' paintings of diamonds as mandalas alludes to the fact that diamonds are as much hype as they are tangible objects, but again there's no specifically linguistic basis for her work. Wood may be going out on a curatorial limb here. Then again, perhaps the point is that in the context of a hyper-voluble media-obsessed culture, the visual and the textual intertwine in ways that cannot be completely unraveled.