JOHN BALDESSARI | MEL BOCHNER | ANDREA BOWERS | MARCEL BROODTHAERS | MERLIN CARPENTER | BETHANY COLLINS | GEORGE CONDO | DEXTER DALWOOD | JENNY HOLZER | DONNA HUDDLESTON | PAULINA OLOWSKA | RICHARD PRINCE | JOSEPHINE PRYDE | GARY SIMMONS | MICHAEL SIMPSON | BETTY TOMPKINS | CY TWOMBLY | LAWRENCE WEINER | HEIMO ZOBERNIG
Simon Lee Gallery is pleased to present WORDS, a group exhibition that explores the function of language and the role of text in art making. Whether dealing in political statements, ribald asides, poetry and literature or illegible scrawls and scribbles, the works in this exhibition comment on the ways in which ideas are exchanged and communication effected. While the visual language of an artist’s vernacular is well trodden ground, WORDS highlights the way in which – from the late 1960s onwards – conceptual art practice delved into notions of authorship, aesthetics and the dematerialisation of the traditional art object, in the pursuit of complicating the relationship between the verbal and the visual. Taking words and language as both subject and medium, the works presented explore the interrelation of form and meaning, and the distinction between looking at and reading a painting.
The role of language in conceptual art aids in the emphasis of ideas over visual forms, challenging the traditional art object. Central to many artists’ practices in the 1960s and beyond was this intersection of linguistic and visual representation. Mel Bochner’s early practice probes the ways in which we receive and interpret information. In Forgetting Is The Only Continuum, first conceived of in 1970, Bochner questions the essential relationship between an idea and the means of its communication; this body of work marked a critical moment in the history of early conceptual art.
By contrast, in Word Chain: Faucet (Ilene's story) (1975), John Baldessari builds a narrative from a fragmentary database of words and images, obfuscating the way in which the viewer receives information. Challenging the traditional relationship between an idea and its visual explanation, Marcel Broodthaers’ Roule Moule (1967) sets out the title of the work beneath a panel of varnished mussels, leading the viewer to consider the structural connection between language and image, something that is reflected in the composite parts of Richard Prince’s Two Pants Suit (1989), in which joke and comic strip image are arbitrarily collaged, thereby disrupting meaning.
Poised on the precipice between the verbal and visual, Cy Twombly’s Seguso (1976) synthesises image and language. Confronted with calligraphic scrawls, the viewer strives to find legibility in a composition that defies any coherent reading. With his poetic output, Twombly complicated the notion of text in art, at once profoundly communicating with his audience and at the same time, mystifying meaning.
The power and influence of text-based art as a vehicle for provocation against social and political injustice is prevalent in the work of Jenny Holzer, whose forceful Truisms have become part of the public domain. Her Survival series, written for display both as electronic signs and aluminium plaques, instruct, inform and interrogate with cautionary phrases, such as the ambiguous, ‘Turn soft and lovely anytime you have a chance’. Similarly, with her confrontational oeuvre, Betty Tompkins explicitly addresses misogyny, gender bias and female sexuality through a feminist lens, using text to dismantle the male gaze. The work of Bethany Collins is equally absorbed in the power of language, exploring the nuances of translation and interpretation in the construction of racial identity.
Gary Simmons’ practice uses the act of erasure to reflect on African American social and cultural narratives. In Moreland Midnight (2018) he smudges the name of Mantan Moreland, a now forgotten black actor of the 1930s and 40s, across the paper leaving a spectral residue that evokes a sense of loss while simultaneously conveying the power of memory. In Andrea Bowers’ work, art and politics intersect. Her interest in nonviolent protest and civil disobedience is motivated by a fascination with the history of political activism and its visual language, as seen in the rallying cry of Educate, Agitate, Organize (2010).
In Wall (2017), Dexter Dalwood uses bold lettering, suggestive in composition of the iconic Hollywood Sign, to confront the racial and political rhetoric surrounding the Mexico-United States border wall. Likewise, in George Condo’s Untitled (1985), text is the dominant compositional feature of the painting, literally spelling out the narrative. In this early painting, Condo writes out his name in a series of mismatched, lyrical letters – a reckoning with and celebration of his identity as an artist. The theme running through Michael Simpson’s work is the infamy of religious history. He makes clear subjective references to text or image throughout his work, although he is essentially concerned with how a painting is made. The presence of the Russian text in Dead Cross (2020) acts as a mechanism; a jolt or a typographical shout.
Elsewhere, text is used for its arresting, graphic quality. In Haunted Houses (2019), Paulina Olowska uses text as a headline, to condense and contextualise her readings of feminist discourse, inspired by the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and readings on witchcraft, the occult and symbolic burial. Similarly, in the works of Heimo Zobernig, Lawrence Weiner, and Donna Huddleston, words are used with the intention to strike; once the words have been read, the viewer is left to contemplate their arrangement, presentation and significance.
Josephine Pryde’s photograms belong to an on-going series of camera-less works that reflect her interest in language and the history - as well as the future - of darkroom experimentation, print and imaging techniques. Her use here of horse semen to spell the word ‘guilty’ creates a point of tension between material and idea where the work gathers meaning. The use of language in Merlin Carpenter’s The Opening: Intrinsic Value: 5 (2009), underlines the commodification of art practice. The artist scrawls the words, ‘STOP ART’ across the canvas in capital letters, succeeding in complicating the relationship between consumer and art object.
All works subject to prior sale and taxes where applicable.