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Joseph Grigely
Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)
220 East Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
November 22, 2008 - February 22, 2009

When the Dawn Barks
by Erik Wenzel

St. Cecilia, 2007, is the centerpiece of an exhibition of recent work by Joseph Grigely of the same name at the MCA. The two-channel video composed of various video stock and super 8 film presents the Baltimore Choral Society singing three beloved songs: “The Czar is Afraid of Everything,” “Check Close Those Lucky Legs” and “Cy Licks Light.” These are actually the misread versions of “My Favorite Things,” “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and “Silent Night.” Depending on which speaker you stand under, you either hear the correct lyrics or the alternate lyrics, written by Grigely. Both audio tracks are perfectly in sync with the images you see projected. This references the fallibility of lipreading. It also ties into the phenomena we all experience of misinterpreting the lyrics of songs. Hearing the alternate lyrics of Grigely’s and knowing they were not the original ones, I tried to figure them out; l ended up generating my own, third version. This is very interesting because of the way your brain plows through information. When you think you know the words, you will literally hear them, even if that is not what the singer is singing.

Grigely, who lost his hearing at a young age, recounts becoming interested in working with music and the way it is performed when watching New Years Eve concerts in 1999. “The world must look so silly without sound,” his partner and sometimes collaborator Amy Vogel remarked to him in sign language. “She was right of course,” Grigely says, “but the silliness of a silent world doesn’t mean that it’s without interest or meaning.” Because of the camerawork, the scale of projection and the heightened awareness of the separation between image and sound in St. Cecilia, we as viewers are able to experience another aspect of what Grigely talks about, the incredibly odd and fascinating expressions and gestures people make while performing music.

Another iteration of this interest in looking at the visual aspect of music being performed, led to a series of prints entitled An essay about putting infinite trust in the absence of physical knowledge, 2007. These are images of performances of various musicians printed in The New York Times, subtly missing their captions. We are left with no context for what were are seeing, for even when the title of a review is present, “the Cold Night Air the Devil Dares to Tread,” it is a fragment and dislocated from the image. There is just a dynamic image that leads us to imagine what the sound might be.

Another work in the show, You, 2001 created with Amy Vogel has several large colorful blown-up prints of people’s names hastily scrawled on scraps of paper, a cluster of speakers hanging from the ceiling plays people of various ages and backgrounds saying “Ed Ruscha.” As an artist who has worked so extensively with words and language, Ruscha is an excellent choice. It is also a bit of an art insider moment. It seems like everyone has that time in their life, in art school maybe, where someone more knowledgeable explains that it is not “Russia” or “roo-shaw” or “roosh-kuh” but “roo-shay.” It’s something you only know by someone telling you and then hearing everyone say it that way.

Some of the work is blunted by the “exhibition prosthetics” as Grigely calls them. The stanchions that prevent you from getting close enough to read all the various texts and the big, vinyl-lettered “do not touch” signs on the floor around the sparse and poignant clear polymer buckets that make up the conversational That’s What We Live For, 2006, are examples. But the best title cards with explanations as to what the work is “about” are seen here. Instead of a dry watered down institutional narrative, portions of interviews conducted with the artist (or artists depending upon the piece) are presented. It further underscores Grigely’s interest in the way language is concretized in writing from conversation, and they provide the casual and useful discussions of the work.

Grigely is most known for his works on paper that stem from his conversations with hearing people over the years. Disjointed phrases and fragments appear on various bits of paper he has collected and filed. Grigely makes clear that they come from the need for clarity when talking to someone and lipreading just doesn’t work. Sometimes he keeps them, but they don’t originate from an impulse to make art out of them. “One out of a hundred might get used,” he states.

Joseph Grigely, We're bantering dunkening about what's important in life, 2007. Collection Martin Z. Margulies, Miami. Courtesy of the artist and Cohan and Leslie, New York.

The results, two of which are seen here, are formally stunning grids of colored paper up against white ones. In We’re bantering drunkening about what’s important in life [sic], 2007, the white grid meets the colored grid in a corner in the wall. What I find so satisfying about these text pieces is the way they operate formally and in their content. Grigely talks about in an interest in the grids of Agnes Martin, but then in his breakdown they are imperfect. They still form a complete rectangle though. Another interest of his is in the way Josef Albers talks about how colors cannot be placed side by side without affecting one another. This occurs in Grigely’s text pieces, both in the subtle differences of the whites, and in the stark contrasts of the colors. This extends into the words written on the papers as well, they relate to one another. Phrases seem to comment on, or refer to, each other. For example one says, “DEPENDS WHAT FOOD + WHAT SEX[.] LOOK WHAT YOU’RE EATING NOW[.]” Next to that is a note that says, “Our Dad had a breakfast of [a glass of] raw Egg [and a glass of] orange Juice & he was out of here.” A diagram of two glasses explains further. Little drawings and doodles add a nice touch to the piece as well, displaying how people can relate through drawing as well. Further narratives and layers of meaning are implied by the types of paper: blank scraps, receipts, business cards, even a flyer for a strip joint, they all add flavor. They also add a sense of time and place.

These works, as can be said of Grigely’s practice at large, are interested in the notion of language becoming material. Here, language is manifested as art.

--Erik Wenzel

(Top image: Joseph Grigely, Remembering is a difficult job, but somebody has to do it, 2005. Courtesy of the artist and Cohan and Leslie, New York.)

Posted by Erik Wenzel on 12/15/08

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