Rather than looking to the history of language art, Writ Deep is an exploration of the relationship between craft and text as a unique affinity between forms. Where the use of text in art has historically been to push the boundaries of the field – including operating as an anti-art form or advocating for an anti-aesthetic – text and craft share a longer history where text is anything but anti-craft.
Craft that employs text lends language a physicality: a tangible, as opposed to metaphorical, body. Craft and text is an obliging re-unification of body and mind as the abstract is made manifest both materially and methodologically. In Writ Deep, the idea of an embedded text connects the work of Michael Dinges, Michael Genovese, Carol Jackson and Rebecca Ringquist whose processes of scrimshaw, engraving, leather-tooling, and embroidery and appliqué (respectively) are rooted in craft traditions. Each of these artists is invested in these forms as their chosen medium, as opposed to utilizing them strictly for a singular metaphor, and each employs text as a major mark in their work.
To embed something means to plant it firmly and deeply in surrounding mass. In the case of text and craft, the word is surrounded by material that supports, informs and contextualizes it in a way that the page alone cannot. In craft/text relationship, the material substrate becomes a body for the text to inhabit, not just a supporting surface. Through methodologies like engraving, etching and embroidery, text impregnates the material, creating a resolute bond that literally alters or changes the substrate through a kind of scoring or scarring of the surface – actions that call to mind a body as it might be scratched and scarred through use or through decoration. Scars are telling reminders of a body’s history; in the case of text, materiality and craft, the connection between method of incision and the substrate itself becomes one that is partially dependent on the material’s narrative and partially dependent on the narrative inherent to the process.
The artists in Writ Deep all work with a stylus so, in addition to their shared use of text and textual markings, their work could be described as drawing. Text functions as both the written word as well as sign, a subject for a drawing that resides between the second and third dimension. Drawing text ties these practices to graffiti, diaries/sketchbooks and marginal notations, subjective forms of writing and reflection that are linked to craft because of its subjective and amateur associations. The melding of amateur craft forms, common materials and writing in each of these practices’ underlying political essence results in work that manages to avoid irony while still maintaining sharp wit.
Carol Jackson uses traditional leather tooling techniques to draw into hide, imprinting both text and symbols into its surface in the construction of signs and monuments. Borrowing from sources from epic literature to real estate advertising, Jackson’s work addresses the hubris of mankind, particularly in service to the ‘American Dream’ that drives an insatiable culture of ownership. In Writ Deep, Jackson’s trophies and micro-monuments reveal slices of history that comprise a continual cycle of seizure and relinquishment: a stratum of human residue that marks the traffic and possession that has modified and marked the landscape for generations. Between tooled barbed wire and horseshoes and more organic forms, Jackson collapses mankind with the landscape then re-marks it textually, pushing the otherwise intimate and sensual craft object into a faux objectivity.
Using scrimshaw on mass-produced, white plastic goods, Michael Dinges also addresses capitalism, but accentuates the precarious position of laborer in relation to the production of both goods and information in a post-industrial age. Using scrimshaw as a method for reportage, commentary and satire, Dinges works surfaces from coffee makers to laptops to vinyl siding, creating elegant texts reminiscent of turn of the century engraving, political cartoons and tramp art. The texts and drawings covering his surfaces are elegant defacements, indictments that mar the surface of the unembellished, uniform goods of mass-produces, ‘democratic’ modernism. In Writ Deep, his dead laptop series hovers in the gallery like tidy plastic ghosts, their loss of functionality eliminating their value as fetishized products; a reminder of their power to both contain and erase the identities entrusted to them.
As opposed to the defacement of appropriation of mass-produced goods, Michael Genovese’s engravings make the act of defiant marking precious by installing a pristine surface on which he invites anyone to leave their imprint. Providing the stylus and a substrate (aluminum with baked-on-enamel), participants are encouraged to write and draw into Genovese’s plates – their markings made luminescent by the sharp contrast between the silvery metal that is revealed and the enamel that is scraped away. Genovese interacts with and works into these inherited surfaces and “translates” them through a process of documenting the markings via a series of notes that are then re-inscribed onto polished tablets. Through his process, the public engravings act as live, organic drawings while the record historicizes them immediately – lending immediate weight to unedited, everyday reflections and conversations.
In all of these practices, the hand is a visible agent. It’s potential for precision as much as for mistake remains palpable, as edits or alterations are necessarily visible. The nature of the embedded text is the impossibility of emendation on the part of the author or the inability of the substrate to ‘heal’ over the mark. For Genovese and Dinges, the act of engraving includes marks that might be obliterated through further engraving; for Ringquist and Jackson, the cutting and repositioning of texts and marks might be required, causing the document to shrink and heave as it is re-pieced.
This palpable crafting of document emphasizes a laboring over the message that is increasingly lost, not only by post-industrial manufacturing practices, but by web 2.0 communication strategies that stress rapid fire commentary, character length, and – importantly – an unsettling ability to continually delete and revise. Writ Deep calls attention to an investment or persistence in communication; a steadfast, desire to leave a mark, a message that says more than “I was here” but claims “I was here, and I meant it.”
Shannon Stratton is a writer and curator based in Chicago, Illinois where she founded and is current Executive and Creative Director of threewalls, a not-for-profit visual arts residency and exhibition project space. She teaches at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Fiber and Material Studies, Art History, Theory and Criticism and Arts Administration.