The siren call of stellar artists including Ed Ruscha, Red Grooms and David Hockney makes WORD, an exhibit at the Boulder Art Center, hard to resist. But this large show of text-based works fails to thrill, displaying many noncurrent (if not aged) creations, some that have been seen more than once in recent memory at local venues. Lacking a clear focus, WORD tries to present an encyclopedic look at every type of art that includes text--from the early political rantings of Jenny Holzer to photographs of signage--without any supporting information or defining viewpoint.

In such a diffuse panorama, something important gets lost: the truly earthshaking effect of text on art, especially in the postmodern era. Letters and words first appeared in the art world around the turn of the century, mostly as "found" elements used for satirical or visual effect in collages and paintings. The Dada-influenced Magritte moved closer to the point with his 1928 "The Wind and the Song," a painting of a pipe with the inscription "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe"). This work changed forever the perception of representational art and began a shift in emphasis that today is a full-blown revolution. In the last decade or so, linguistic (aka deconstructionist) criticism has swept the art world, inviting every painting or statue to be re-evaluated as some form of text. Simultaneously, the flashy graphics of TV and print ads have forced fine artists to compete by generating their own versions of the printed word and urging viewers to rethink the subject.

Unfortunately, too much of WORD hails from a different aesthetic than either the Dadaists or the postmodern deconstructionists. The redoubtable Grooms offers a good example: His large, colorful lithograph "Sunday Funnies" shows one of the New York artist's cartoonish characters reading a comic page. The script contained on the pages of the comic contributes the "word" part, but it seems incidental to the content, merely another object being portrayed. The linguistic critics would call such offhand treatment reactionary and demand that the text be more subversive, so as to disrupt the conventional structure of the art. David Hockney's pencil sketch of a man sitting in a chair doesn't appear to contain any words or text at all (save for the megafamous Hockney's exceedingly valuable signature). And Ruscha's contribution is a small, unremarkable painting, without the dizzying, optically altered text that has made the artist such a success.

In contrast to these timid, irrelevant approaches, Leslie Dill never lets the text be a subordinate element. Her paper sculpture of a nineteenth-century dress, "The Soul Selects Her Own Society," is an overtly feminist work dedicated to Emily Dickinson's poem of that name. But details give the piece added depth. For example, the tiny Victorian dress is a mere facade, empty in the back; is Dill implying that the stiff manners of Victorian society were without substance? The dress is made from an Indian newspaper printed in Sanskrit; perhaps the odd choice of material refers to the poor record of human rights in that overcrowded country, where women's lives are routinely sacrificed to backbreaking work and ancient customs. Dill inks the handwritten text of Dickinson's protofeminist poem over the Sanskrit of the newspaper, as if to send a liberating message to India and all oppressive nations. Dill's "A Word Made Flesh" consists of a pair of intaglio lithographs, dark, hand-sewn paper pieces that take literally the deconstructionist theory that says the body itself is a text. The nude figures and outspread hands Dill portrays in these prints are incongruously tattooed with words.

Jim Johnson's text-based works are equally up to date and engaging. Johnson begins with the accepted idea of the printed word, then adds jokey twists and turns. "Secret Love" is a lithograph based on color-blindness tests that look like piles of jelly beans but with the words "secret" and "love" hidden in them--words invisible to the color-blind. In "Lido Mystery," Johnson proposes a different alphabet entirely, one based on silhouettes of familiar objects. Arranged very much like a child's ABC poster, the collected "letters" suggest a coded message.

Understanding might have been enhanced here with explanatory text accompanying each artwork (none is provided). Some of the best pieces are missing labels entirely; viewers must guess who the artists are, as well as their rationales for using text in the compositions. My reaction to the show is perhaps best depicted in John Buck's often-seen color woodcut "The Times," which shows a pile of text-loaded newspapers going up in flames.

WORD, through October 2 at the Boulder Art Center, 1750 Thirteenth Street, Boulder, 443-2122.

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Hart Hill