It’s no secret that the way we consume information is rapidly changing. At a time when the most effective way of reaching a broad audience is through 140 characters and listicles, fewer people are indulging in the pleasures of spending time with a text. To appreciate the group exhibition Thanks for Writing at 601Artspace, you must be prepared to savor the written word. The show highlights diverse considerations of the relationship between language and visual art with 14 artists addressing disparate topics and working in different media.
Several of those artists use the careful omission of crucial data to puckishly imply a greater narrative. At first glance, the four posters by Iranian artist Shahab Fotouhi appear to be typically picturesque photographs of waterfalls, obtusely titled “Establishing Shot; Interior, Night – Exterior, Day; without Antagonist and Extra” (2013); upon closer inspection, however, small, white, and charmingly voluptuous commas, periods, question and quotation marks become apparent, like bubbles rising from the rushing waters. The accompanying statement explains that the pieces feature transcribed dialogue from the 2009 Iranian presidential campaign, but with all the words removed, leaving only the punctuation. The statement also cautions that viewers should not associate these works with censorship or see the waterfalls as a political metaphor, instead offering three interpretive propositions, of which Fotouhi cannot choose his favorite. This refusal to proclaim his intentions initially feels like a way to dodge artistic responsibility, but the lack of seriousness often expected from political art becomes a relief: Fotouhi mischievously invites viewers to play with the messages as much as they would like.
Spilling from the wall to the floor, two carefully hand-written columns file down a long chain of paper. The title of the piece, “Every Descriptive Word or Phrase Used to Describe Artists and their Work in Artforum’s ‘Best of 2013’” (2014), offers the simple parameters that artist Jennifer Dalton used to reveal a gender disparity in the art world and in the pages of Artforum. Not surprisingly, the two columns — one for men and one for women — differ dramatically in length, with the men’s side extending more than twice as long as the women’s. Dalton gives viewers the unique opportunity to evaluate the lexicon used to describe male and female artists by way of hilarious, depressing, and innuendo-laden comparisons. For example, on one line the men’s triumphant “variously humorous, dark and artistically amazing” opposes the women’s dismissed “self-conscious strangeness”; on another, the masculine “historical” opposes the feminine “botanical.” Which pairs stand out may differ from one viewer to the next, and the superstitious associations between couplings reveal as much about the art world as they do about each viewer’s personal convictions.
Tucked in the far corner of the gallery, as if on a time-out, hangs a small screen looping Oskar Dawicki’s video “I’m Sorry” (2005). Through the provided headphones, the viewer/listener hears disembodied, blubbering sobs. On the screen, the meek Dawicki, wearing a gaudy iridescent blue blazer, stands submissively with his head hung and hands clasped. Polish text zooms into the foreground with the tacky animation styles usually reserved for late-night infomercials. Subtitled in English, the text narrates remorseful feelings regarding the exhibition’s inadequacy — which Dawicki admits is his fault — and how he really is very sorry for being such a disappointment to everyone: “First of all, I’d like to apologise for this exhibition not being as good as it could be.” Though he shifts slightly throughout the video, his movements never sync with the histrionic heaves of the audio, suggesting the insincerity of his contrition. “I’m Sorry” calls up a bemused skepticism, like listening to a child with frosting all over his face insist he did not eat the missing piece of cake. Using the visual vocabulary of (admittedly outdated) advertisements, Dawicki sarcastically challenges the direct relationship between visual and textual information, implying the potency of human deceit.
The works featured in Thanks for Writing illuminate how artists can uniquely elevate the combination of text and image beyond their singular functions. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this, John Baldessari’s “Prima Facie (Fifth State): Mudslide” (2006) consists of a bisected frame: on one side, the bold serif text reads “MUDSLIDE,” and a mud-brown pigment fills the other. While neither text nor hue fully describes the geologic event, together they combine to create a tongue-in-cheek metaphor that rises above the individual elements. Whether through the removal or obfuscation of language, or being literal to the point of near meaninglessness, the artists in Thanks for Writing reveal the fertile collaborations and the slippery distinctions between text and image.
Thanks for Writing continues at 601Artspace (601 West 26th Street, #1755, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 14.