Taipei Dangdai 2019
On the occasion of the first edition of Taipei Dangdai in Taiwan in January 2019, Simon Lee Gallery is pleased to present a solo booth of works by Mel Bochner from his iconic Ha Ha Ha series.
Mel Bochner’s intellectual and material analysis of photography, painting and sculpture has produced ground-breaking works that have established his reputation as one of the leading American conceptualists. Throughout his career, the artist has explored the intersection of linguistic and visual representation. His early works dissected the art object and formed the ‘analytical’ groundwork so crucial to informing the basis for the more ‘synthetic’ works of recent years. The overriding question at the heart of his project has always been the same - how do we receive and interpret different types of information? In the wake of abstract expressionism artists felt there was little to add to painting and this triggered in Bochner a response that was more about thinking than making. He started to find clear ways of looking at art and to question how we experience depth, perspective and space. He went on to explore language and colour in the same way.
His thesaurus paintings are an important part of this particular enquiry. With their focus on text and its interpretation, these works re-imagine language as a form of pictorial expression. His use of colour sometimes affirms the language it is painting and at other times ignores it, intentionally avoiding system and pattern. These paintings make us think about the acts of reading and looking, of representation and abstraction, and how they intersect. The thesaurus paintings are just one of many rationalising systems that Bochner uses to question and explore our irrational trust in language and the world around us.
Out of the thesaurus paintings, Bochner developed a new, powerfully graphic body of work that continued to track the artist’s ongoing fascination with language and colour. Beginning with the phrase ‘blah blah blah’ – a linguistic shorthand in the English language that acts as a substitute for words in contexts where the content is felt to be too tedious or lengthy to recapitulate – he gravitated towards another metonym: ‘ha ha ha’. Performing a similar function to ‘blah’, ‘ha’ is an onomatopoeia that indicates laughter and has gained currency in today’s digitally-advanced society, as methods of communication become ever more succinct. In Bochner’s ‘Ha Ha Ha’ series, block capitals ooze with vibrant pigment on velvet surfaces, each graphic capital abstracted by the formal qualities of artistic practice. Yet by using this term Bochner also plays with the sincerity of his endeavour, directing a humour-filled nod at a legacy he has so positively shaped.
‘There is an enormous literature on the subject of humour that only demonstrates the futility of trying to explain a joke’, Bochner notes, ‘For me humour is, first of all, a sceptical way of looking at the world. For the sceptic everything is perpetually in doubt. Every answer merely leads to another question. From this point of view the goal of humour is the subversion of certainty. In order to critique unquestioned beliefs and assumptions, jokes use misdirection, surprising shifts in perspective, and the upending of expectations. The various forms that comedy takes – irony, sarcasm, satire, parody, ridicule, pun, double entendre – are all strategies to undermine the domination of reason and logic. There is, however, a dark side to humour. It often leads to the realisation that everything may only add up to nothing. But the fact that humour exists, and that nothing is immune to it, makes that realisation (slightly) less unbearable’.