Actions do not often speak louder than words: words are actions. They are the most devastating weaponry and the most powerful tools that humans possess, having delivered more damage—and greater understanding—than anything else known to us. Words have built states, empires, and civilizations, and they have written the destruction of the same. Our archives of treaties, artifacts, and agreements are among the most revered treasures in museums the world over. They include the visual arrangements of pattern poetry from the third century BC; lavishly decorated books of hours—the spiritual guides of the day from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance; national constitutions found in the magnificent legacies of the Declaration of Arbroath or the Magna Carta; and the hauntingly personal, seen in the final letter of Mary Queen of Scots to Henry III of France composed 6 hours before her execution. Recorded words constitute the reason and the madness of humanity throughout our existence.
Artists then, have a duty to the power and importance of words if they are going to utilize them in the pursuit of artful expression. Yet how often do they consider the monumental historical reservoir into which they dip? As our most accessible source of communication, it is deceptively simple to make art from words but exceptionally difficult to render their subtleties effectively. It can be humbling to regard the potential that we wield in our every utterance, and when that is combined with the veracity of experience, intelligence, and deftness of hand, words in art can convey meaning as well as the most fluid brushstrokes of history’s greatest painters.
Alas, such dexterity with text is the exception. From art fairs to gallery and museum exhibitions the contemporary scene is burdened with text art that bypasses the agility required to do it justice, too often celebrated for its draining mediocrity or outright idiocy.
Profound and Profane
Vivienne Griffin, In God We Trusted, 2008, 100 $1 bills, ink. Courtesy of Francis Lewis Gallery at St. George’s Church
One can discern an intuitive brilliance in the work of those who manage to draw resonance from societal conditions via textual gestures. In God We Trusted (2008), by the Irish artist Vivienne Griffin, comprises 100 $1 bills, each containing an almost imperceptible ink addition of “ed” at the end of that bombastic religious pronouncement. That this money could yet be in circulation—alterations unnoticed—is a small but multi-faceted gesture connecting the status, beliefs, failures, and aspirations of humankind, while quietly undermining our proudest and most flawed assertions. Douglas Gordon’s earlier text works are equally evocative. In I Remember Nothing (1994) that sentence, in vinyl, is fragmented and repeated on a sky blue wall, in various sizes, emerging from and disappearing into the background, while in List of Names (Random) (1990–ongoing) he attempts to remember everyone he has ever met. These works evince the brevity of memory, noting the dichotomy between attempts to recall the events of our lives, and the ominous deterioration of age and sickness which deprives us of them. Gordon confronts us with the arresting certainty that decrepitude will always triumph over acuity.
Robert Blanchon, Untitled [Get Well Soon], 1992. Via Visual Aids
Resonant with pathos, Robert Blanchon’s Untitled (1993) shows a tattoo of two entwined hearts with blank ribbons across them where names might be inscribed, or might once have been. His Untitled [Get Well Soon] (1992) shows merely a small white card illustrated with a bouquet of flowers and in funereal font, the legend “Get Well Soon.” He knew, like so many others of his generation suffering from AIDS-related complications, that he would never fulfill that benign request. Texan artist John Wilcox also used words to engage with the stresses of his mortality due to HIV. In Revelation (1993) Wilcox removes the punctuation from the Gospel of St John, denying the prescribed manner of how we perceive text in the west, so that it becomes an unbroken continuum of unfamiliar rhythms. The discreet interventions of these men achieve immense perspicacity.
However, there are many more artists who, lacking abilities, become liabilities. An early example can be found in Bruce Nauman’s puerile neons which do not so much employ words, as subpoena them into lurid servitude. Lo, such gaseous emissions as The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967) or “shit and live” and “piss and die” from the drooling 100 Live and Die (1984). Nauman’s ghastly punnery with its strained statements of psycho-social drivel is the cancerous gene of text art, endlessly mutating to infect later generations.
(left) Glenn Ligon, Give us a Poem (Palindrome #2), 2007, Collection of the Studio Museum, Harlem. Via Museum GIFs
(right) Iván Navarro, Eternal Contradiction, 2008
Iván Navarro’s infinity mirror pieces include sophomoric attempts at textual drama—“Order,” “Shout,” “Me/We,”—receding into inky visual depths. The latter phrase used in Eternal Contradiction (2008) is the same lazy, reflected-word motif as can be seen in Glenn Ligon’s Give us a Poem (Palindrome #2) a Muhammad Ali-inspired work from 2007, which in fact is not a palindrome. The destitution of Navarro’s limited vocabulary within his gimmicky speculums renders his efforts as benign interior design pieces rather than art, and does scant justice to the serious political concerns he is interested in. His insipid circular effort Nothing Will Come of Nothing (2015) shown in December at Art Basel Miami Beach, is superlative.
View of the Public sector in Collins Park, Art Basel Miami Beach, 2015, with Sylvie Fleury's Eternity Now, 2015, on the Bass Museum of Art. Photo: © Art Basel
Miami in fact offered abundant examples of incredulous deficiency in word art, including Tavares Strachan’s tedious Us, We, Them (Blue, Green, Yellow), two interlocking neon circles containing those pronouns; John Giorno’s meek acrylic clones of Allen Ruppersberg, offering therapeutic wisdoms such as Just Say No To Family Values (2015), or his bland watercolor Life is a Killer (2015); Sam Durant’s delusional lightbox with black text, You Have the Power (2015); the impotent portentousness of Alfredo Jaar’s Be Afraid of the Enormity of the Possible (2015); Adriano Costa’s Study for Arts and Entertainment (2014), a white rug bearing the logo “Life and Death of Amazing People” which might have at least offered functionality had it been laid on the floor for people to walk upon; and Sylvie Fleury’s comatose neon—what else—Eternity Now (2015), both fragrant and flagrant within its perfume brand caricature. Presumably intended as stand alone statements of populist or egalitarian incisiveness, the sloth and intellectual negligence afforded these efforts ensures that every one of them is a contributor to the scourge of utter debasement currently corroding text-based art.
Amusement and Sentiment
Victoria Siemer, from the series Human Error. Courtesy of the artist, Via Witchoria
Humor, and especially wit can be a compelling component of text art, but only when coupled with insight. Victoria Siemer’s Human Error series presents Polaroid images of romantic and nostalgic motifs—a calm blue ocean, a rumpled bed, flowers against the sky—overlaid with typical computer error messages, altered to reflect the pain of heartbreak: “are you sure you want to erase all feelings,” “deleting inhibitions.” A wicked morsel is an image of the Hindenburg disaster, with the Google Maps pin icon and the note “wish you were here.” The acknowledgment of the role that technology plays in the realm of emotional trauma, combined with the gentle mirth of the text is exquisitely hewn. Ben Carrick displays a similar surgical control in teasing and parsing artistic commentaries. A 2011 silkscreen print in pink and black font reads “I Couldn’t Afford Neon,” an arch yet unpretentious response to the nauseating redundancy of that bankrupt trend, while Untitled Or: Confessions of a Post-post Modernist, from 2013, states “I used to make conceptual art now I just say I do.”
Ben Carrick, I couldn't afford neon, 2011, Silk-screen print on Norfolk paper, 59 X 84cm, Edition of 10. Courtesy of the artist
For every artist who applies such awareness, there are unfortunately many more charlatans who lack the cerebral faculties, yet insist on stumbling forth. We have noted Nauman’s fumblings, but his Run From Fear, Fun From Rear (1972) is the belching progenitor of countless failed attempts at humor in text art. Taking up the slack, Alejandro Diaz’s tawdry neons couldn’t be more intellectually impoverished if they lived under a bridge. Flickering examples include the fratty Wetback by Popular Demand (2008); SAME SEX DIVORCES (Inquire Within) (2013); and I'M WIRED (2013), just three of a brainless embarrassment of glitches, containing all the depth of a Manhattan Mini Storage ad.
Cary Leibowitz is another artist who is alleged to have used humor. His candy-hued written exertions include “isn’t it great you like pizza I like pizza,” “get up you lazy bum,” and “I’m sick of making art.” None of this petulant dross qualifies as keen social commentary and to consider such efforts as at all humorous would be the only joke. Equally colorful, and peddling positivity rather than humor, the textual stylings of Deborah Kass’ series, Feel Good Paintings For Feel Bad Times are placed within blocks of vibrant acrylic, and include upbeat messages such as C'mon Get Happy (2010) and Forget Your Troubles (2010). While these doltish pleadings might lighten the load in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, as art they couldn’t be more depressing. In blinding contrast, wit, sagacity and the execution of humor can be seen in the digital/animated poetry of Marko Niemi of Finland, exemplified in his Fordist Poetry; in the cleverly observational works of Canadian Ben Skinner and in many of the text pictures of Austrian artist Anatol Knotek. To compare these wordsmiths with Leibowitz or Kass is to do them a grave injustice but forgivable as an illustration of how stark the differences can be between artists using text.
The Scottish artist Robert Montgomery wears the mantle of a visual poet, with his large-scale texts on public advertisement sites or emblazoned words in lights or even fire. Coming from a land steeped in literary romanticism it isn’t surprising that he might bear such an inclination, and yet if he is a poet he badly needs an editor. Montgomery’s hammy use of language and the saccharine sentiments it contains are overwrought, cloying indulgences quite detached from linguistic experience in the daily lives of most people, with his interminable billboard texts exemplifying his dreary commentaries.
Gary Rough, Why Are You So Optomistic, 2014
Montgomery might take note of a compatriot, Martin Creed, whose economy with words allows their meaning to “breathe.” Creed’s Work No. 203 EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT (1999) is succinct and hopeful, yet it acknowledges the struggle that life can be at any social or economic class and the belief that on occasion falters within us all. The piece also reaches back 700 years to echo the soothing words of the mystic and anchoress, Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Gary Rough performs a kind of magical osmosis or timed-release viewer experience because his works on paper linger in the mind days and weeks after seeing them. While playfully rendered in scratchy ink or cut-out letters they conjure the melancholy of hope and despair. I Had So Many Dreams, I Had So Many Break-throughs, (2008) and the misspelled Why Are You So Optomistic (2014) are fine examples of Rough’s raw yet elegant aesthetic. Or there is Christopher Major’s concrete poetry, which in a few words conveys the plights of humanity exemplified in his "3 Word Suicide Poem." What Creed, Rough, and Major do so well, is make work that although visually concise is instantly relatable.
Christopher Major, "3 Word Suicide Poem," Published originally in Undergroundvoices ezine. Via Logolalia
The spectacular immaturity of David Shrigley’s text-inclusive works are the definition of infantilism, particularly the humorless I’m Dead (2010) a stuffed dog holding a sign stating that title; or The Bell (2007), which includes the line “not to be rung again until Jesus returns.” A visit to the Bear Gates of Traquair House might cure Shrigley of his silly historical pretenses. Antidotally, Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, a tent embroidered with the names of those people, employs a wry semantic twist that lies beyond Shrigley’s grasp. The piece is not restricted to sexual intimates, but surprising the cynical viewer, references familial ties too, for example, her grandmother.
Backwards and Forwords
In conclusion, as is the case with every form of visual art, representation is suppressed to a few figures who become bloated, entrenched icons as if they were the only ones doing what they did, when in fact they were merely the ones who gained notice. These artists are anointed by the museum and economic systems of the art world, to make the organization of art history simpler, to generate money, and to dictate taste to the proletariat in order to justify the opinions, and pockets, of those who made them famous. In the case of word art, younger generations must contend with the tyrannical canonization of Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Bruce Nauman, Lawrence Weiner, and perhaps Ed Ruscha. The system of auctions, retrospectives, fairs, and reviews weld these names into their gilded positions long after their work has declined into obsolescence. After enough repetitive brainwashing they are accepted in perpetuity, essentially becoming uncritiqueable. This makes it challenging for newer artists to throw off the yoke of such implausible reputations, and succeed them.
Martin Creed, No. 203 EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT, 1999, Neon lights, Collection of the Tate Gallery, U.K.
Presented by Tate Patrons 2009. © Martin Creed. Courtesy of the Tate
However, it is incumbent upon younger artists to make work of a quality and commitment that warrants such elevation, so that they might augment the continuum of word-based creations that have been expertly deployed through the ages in capturing the spirit of humankind. Galleries and reviewers must also search much harder to find those who are doing so, for whether noting grand ideals or the every day, the best of those works placed in the right hands, could be known centuries from now. What is currently passing for—and gaining attention as—the next generation of text-based work is too often derivative garbage that mutilates the connection between intellect and language, and rewards neon-sniffing expendables for their literary atrocities.
Text-based art is currently suffering an unmitigated crisis under these conditions but until artists using text understand and incorporate the weight of responsibility they bear for the privilege of using this medium, they will remain unable to consign the established names of yesteryear to history, take up their own places as the chroniclers of their time, and lend words in art the prestige and dignity they deserve.
Darren Jones is a Scottish, US-based critic and artist. His forthcoming book, with David Carrier, The Contemporary Art Gallery will be published in 2016.
(Image at top: Ben Carrick, Untitled Or: Confessions of a Post-post Modernist, 2013, Courtesy of the artist)