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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia