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Back Talk

Words may be the currency of the 1990s in the same way money was the lingua franca of the 1980s.

Never has this been more clear than in the political crisis that has reached a dramatic pitch in recent weeks. We've all heard President Clinton "parse" his words, while his nemesis, Kenneth Starr, appears only to be interested in "salacious" ones--to mention just two formerly obscure words now in vogue. This semantic battle is to be expected, since part of politics is the art of using words. Less expected is to see words playing an increasingly important role in the visual arts--which by definition are mostly about images. But the contemporary art world is experiencing a broad revival of interest in the combination of words and pictures, and words are even turning up on sculptures. Reflecting this concern is a fine and intelligent exhibit, Words: Be Blatant, Be Emotional, Risk Everything, at downtown's Round World. Not only does the show reflect the present word fad in the art world, but it gives the phenomenon some historic context.

The relationship of writing to drawing is intimate and ancient, since words and pictures were originally the same thing. The earliest written words in Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese calligraphy are, after all, some of the earliest abstract pictures, and modern alphabets are made up of abstractions of earlier abstractions. Combinations of words and pictures appear in ancient Greek and Roman art, as well as in early Christian art. But never has the pairing been more prominently expressed than during the twentieth century. In the early decades, Picasso and the cubists used letters, words and numbers as strong visual elements in their paintings; the contemporaneous futurists, suprematists and dadaists did likewise. Round World's Words picks up the story with the pop artists of the Sixties and brings the viewer up to today's conceptual artists.

The show marks the fall reopening of the two-room Round World; following a light summer remodeling, industrial-gray carpet now freshens the loft-like ground-floor space. Words was organized by Round World partner Peggy Scott and gallery director Simon Zalkind. (Zalkind's been pretty busy lately juggling his part-time role at Round World with another part-time gig as director of the Singer Gallery at the Mizel Arts Center.) They have assembled a stunning array of art, all of it from Round World's impressive stock. "Our immediate idea was that language was a unifying context for a show," Zalkind says. "Even purely pictorial art has references that may be conveyed in words."

The show has been hung handsomely, if instinctually, and based on the arrangement, Scott and Zalkind apparently did not intend to make art-historical or art-critical observations. Words begins on the back wall opposite the entrance. There Scott and Zalkind have placed "Only the Man," a 1997 wall-mounted installation by renowned contemporary artist Leslie Dill. Filling the small wall, a paragraph of cursive writing cast in white bronze surrounds a small male figure, also cast in white bronze. The script and the man have been finished with a beautiful dark patina. Dill incorporates a tenuous piece of blue thread, hung from the figure and extending to the floor, which is juxtaposed with the heavy, solid and permanent material used for the rest of the piece. Content-wise, Dill's paragraph is mostly free-association and virtually nonsensical, though the text does mention the bronze and the thread.

While the Dill installation tells us that words used by artists don't necessarily have any specific meaning, Glenn Ligon's aloof and elegant "Invisible Man," a 1994 gouache and pastel on black paper, consists entirely of text--and it's anything but nonsense. Ligon is an African-American who is interested in the African-American experience as a theme for his work. His earlier efforts used slave narratives; in "Invisible Man," several lines from Richard Wright's Native Son are stenciled in black on the black ground of the paper, making the piece subtle and difficult to read. Zalkind points out that Ligon began as an abstract painter, and his composition is not unlike many types of abstraction--"Invisible Man" refers to both expressionism and minimalism.

Dill's "Only the Man" and Ligon's "Invisible Man" clearly fall within the modern tradition, as do most of the works in the exhibit. But Scott and Zalkind have also included a taste of postmodernism in the form of a large, horizontal diptych titled "Le Chambre No. 30," a 1983 piece by French conceptualist Sophie Calle. On the right panel, Calle lays a grid of black-and-white photographs of a hotel room, on the right a narrative that reveals the meaning of these photographs under a color photograph of the same space. The narrative is printed in Calle's native French, but a card hung next to the piece contains an English translation revealing that "Le Chambre" documents several days during which Calle became a chambermaid in a middle-class Paris hotel. Each day she took photographs of the inanimate objects left by the room's transient occupants. One of the most interesting aspects of this thought-provoking piece is how the changing vignettes of debris reveal the varied and unique personalities of the people who left it behind.

 

Another piece of conceptual art is 1980's "Atomic Alphabet," a hand-colored etching by notorious California artist Chris Burden. Famous for outrageous gestures--he became nationally known when he had himself nailed to a VW Bug--Burden appears in a more contemplative mood at Round World. "Atomic Alphabet" is one of the show's only political pieces--which is interesting, since political art almost always includes text. Burden lists the letters of the alphabet down the left side of the etching, then links each letter to an evocative word ("A for atomic," "Z for zero"). Down the middle are Chinese characters inked in red, presumably with the same content. And down the right side, small drawings plainly express each word.

Jenny Holzer is surely the world's most famous conceptualist to use words as her essential visual hook. Words includes three of Holzer's pieces. "Truisms Drawing," from 1983, is an offset lithograph altered with ink and listing saturated black platitudes vertically on the left. Holzer is more famous for putting her slogans on things meant to be inscribed, and the Words example is a 1983 aluminum plaque titled "It is embarrassing..." hung next to Round World's front door. Such plaques are normally used to mark historic sites (like the nineteenth-century building that houses Round World) or as small signs, but Holzer uses the form to further her ideas. In handsomely centered raised letters is the slogan "It is embarrassing to be caught and killed for stupid reasons." Holzer's sentiment is open-ended and provocative, since the viewer inevitably thinks of relevant instances. The last of the three Holzers is one of the artist's famous marble benches, 1997's "In a dream you saw a way." Round World's Scott points out that "In a dream" recalls grave markers, and this funereal quality is enhanced by the otherworld spirituality of the engraved quote.

Other artists also use enigmatic phrases as their key elements. In a pair of 1991 silkscreens on linen sheets (titled "Where Should I Go?" and "Why Is Everything the Same?"), Allen Ruppersberg uses black printed text to ask the two generic, multi-faceted questions. "Where Should I Go?" appears on a lurid, hot-pink ground, while "Why Is Everything the Same?" is on a delicate sea-green. Paired, they resemble cheap fliers of the type often attached to telephone poles and mailboxes.

Contemporary artists such as Holzer and Ruppersberg owe a debt of gratitude to old-timers like pop-art master Robert Indiana, who is represented in the Words exhibit by a print from his famous Love series. On the wall facing the entrance to the side gallery is 1972's "Four Panel Love," which is made up of four screen prints each displaying the letters in the word "love." This hugely popular image has been translated--both with and without Indiana's permission--into everything from paperweights to U.S. postage stamps.

In Round World's grand example of Indiana's work, the "love" letters are formed by the blank paper, with red and powder blue defining their margins. Despite its age and the fugitive quality of the red ink, the colors have held up well. Even more amazing is how well the piece itself has held up. One of the best things in the Round World show, it still looks quite contemporary even though it was created a generation ago.

Scott and Zalkind did not limit their choices to works that include words. There are also pieces in which artists have aped the act of writing without ever forming words, even when using actual letters. Two major abstract-expressionist stars, Cy Twombly and Joan Mitchell, both use a form of automatism that vaguely resembles handwriting to create wholly non-narrative, non-objective pieces.

Round World includes two Twomblys. In the 1978 graphite-on-paper diptych "Sans Titre," letters and numbers are discernible, but it's impossible to decipher their meaning, other than formally. And in the 1976 colored lithograph "Ficus Carcia," Twombly scribbles a couple of organic shapes sparely on a vertical sheet of paper.

Scribbling, a signature of abstract expressionism, is a literal bridge from writing to drawing. It also characterizes Mitchell's small and lyrical "Untitled" from 1960. Done in oil pastel and incorporating the printed text of a poem written by the artist, the bottom half of the piece is densely composed, with a rectangular smear of dark brown set below another rectangle of dusty light blue. The rest of the composition is airy, with scratches of pink, gray and blue deftly laid over the printed text.

 

As they did several times last season, Scott and Zalkind have created a quietly elegant and dignified show, despite its subtitle. But it is increasingly hard for even the most vanguard artists to use words in a "blatant," "emotional" or "risky" way, because they're working in a world where descriptions of oral sex are found on morning television.

Words: Be Blatant, Be Emotional, Risk Everything, through October 26 at Round World, 2199 B Arapahoe Street (enter on 22nd Street), 303-292-4748.


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