Seeing art in the words around us

What's in a word? More meanings than we might assume, if we consider the myriad ways in which artists in the California Biennial explore the use and misuse of words. The exhibition, at the Orange County Museum of Art through March 13, includes about a dozen such examples out of more than 40 artists selected by museum curator Sarah Bancroft.

"A lot of people think art is a visual experience, but it engages many senses," she says. "For me it's often an intellectual experience, and it seems very much natural that text and language would be incorporated into artwork. Text has a gravity — so many of these works have poignant senses of humor or are whimsical, and are also critical at once."

Some of the artists capture what they have found in public, such as Will Rogan in his "Other Worlds" series, in which he sought out and photographed storefront signs. Gil Blank plays with signs also, although he manipulates them through the computer, enhancing certain details and deleting others. Allison Wiese has created her own sign, a 28-foot-wide green awning with orange text, which asks, "So what are we going to do now?"

Some use words to help us see context and subtext. For his project, Camilo Ontiveros proposed allowing anyone identified as "an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States" into the biennial for free — playing off the Arizona law regarding the identification of illegal immigrants. His proposal and the OCMA board's response (no way, for it would be a form of discrimination) will be on display.

Below, four L.A. artists talk about their text-based art.




During an earlier visit to the museum, Johnston saw and asked for a doorway with an exit sign over it. "I wanted to work with the doorway," the artist says. "I feel that throughout this work there are themes of exit, of disappearance, leaving the body and social norms. I wanted to ceremonialize, to formalize this exit sign. I often talk in my work about spiritual thresholds, the possibility that at any moment we are crossing thresholds and leaving the boundaries of our identity, redefining ourselves."

In his installation he has covered the top and sides of the doorway with drawings and paintings on paper and on fabric, incorporating words in several sections. Two pieces of the paper depict hands becoming flames, and the words "house party," "wild boys" and "wild girls" within them. Another piece, on gray paper with white hand-lettering, is borrowed from the lines of Cinna the Poet, in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" — thus Cinna's response to an interrogation of who he is and what he is about becomes, "my fantasy leads me / forth of doors / forth to fly / and do animal things."

Johnston also writes his own poetry, and sometimes reads and sings his verses in nightclubs and house parties. "For me dealing with language is the most pressing thing I have to do," he says. "Humans are the beast with language, so much of our mental activity and our relationship with the world and each other are structured by language."


Fowler is interested in themes of visibility, which all three of her works in the biennial touch upon. Two involve text.

In the collage "A Single Image is Not Splendor," the words are spelled out with letters formed from cutting pages out of Playboy magazines. The phrase is from Gertrude Stein's "Tender Buttons," a book praised for using words more for their sounds and cadences than for their meaning. However, when Fowler read it, she didn't find the words meaningless, but coded. "I'm thinking the language is so queer, so inherently gay."

Another work is an installation, made up of small stacks of books, wrapped in custom-made paper and arranged on a long table. The title is really part of the work, says Fowler, and lists each book's title, author, publisher and occasional excerpts.

"This is a little library that I made from books that I bought from the ONE library, a gay and lesbian archive at USC," Fowler says. She says she feels a certain reverence for the authors, who were writing during more repressive times. "Queer politics and feminist politics have really changed, but those people led us to the changes in very positive ways."


Grant followed her well-reviewed solo show of text-based work at MOCA in 2007 with a solo at Honor Fraser in 2008. At the latter she continued her exploration of text in six large-scale works on paper that dealt with the senses, with mirror-image words highlighted in bubbles that seemed to float and cluster in space; three of these are in the Biennial. "I was always interested in language," she says, "because of growing up and going between nations, (Mexico and the U.S.) and being very much a reader as a child."

For this series, she took text supplied by poet Michael Joyce, which had been inspired by Buddhist sutras, and did a visual riff on them. She refers to them as "portals," so large that perhaps the viewer might enter them and meditate upon six different realms of perception.

The subject of "First Portal (mind)" is consciousness. "How do you show thinking?" Grant asks. "So there are these gray, ambiguous areas of language in the back out of which these spectrums of ideas are bursting through." The theme of the "Second Portal (eye)" is sight, with contrasting bubbles containing words such as "read," "place" and "image" emerging from the dark background.

"I like the fact that anyone can look at my work and understand that it's about language," she says. "It's available to anyone even if you couldn't read it, it's also very specific text, so it has this wonderful both/and."


"I'm from South Carolina and a lot of the work I've done previously references that," Pressley says. As a child, her family visited Charleston, and there she was introduced to the Gullah language and culture — the Gullah are descendants of African slaves who settled in the Sea Islands, and to this day they speak an unusual dialect influenced by African languages.

In "Word," Pressley has made a two-sided work on paper. On one side are the first three verses from the Book of John from the Gullah Bible, which begins, "Fo God mek de wol, de Wod been dey. De Wod been dey wid God, an de Wod been God." Pressley has written the verses around the paper, turning it and continuing it repeatedly until the text covers the surface. The text, says Pressley, who was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, "is basically about Jesus coming down and the word becoming flesh," and is a cornerstone of Christianity. The slaves adopted the English language and Christianity as part of their survival strategy.

On the other side of the paper she has embossed part of the story of Anansi, a spider-like character from African folklore, in which he is collecting tales from the Sky God. "I'm putting these two texts in the same conversation. It speaks to the complexities of these communities trying to survive, of how communities try to negotiate a space."

In working with verses from the Bible, Pressley says, "maybe I'm trying to enliven it for myself."

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