Siglio Press’s anthology of text-based art, It is Almost That, is a rare gem: a book of pivotal works that have received little critical attention. Because of its attention to the obscure, It is Almost That is essential for anyone interested in feminist art, performance studies, cross-genre writing or the graphic novel.
It is Almost That was conceived and edited by Siglio publisher Lisa Pearson, who envisioned the book to be the first of several editions that would document pieces in the fuzzy area between art and text, works that are “not-quite-this-and-not-quite-that.” In her afterword, Pearson emphasizes that “categories cannot contain” and that works that are “partly (almost) visible to one world [are] often entirely invisible to another.” The twenty-six pieces that comprise the volume are not arranged in chronological order, though they are loosely associated with works that precede and follow them. Through this manner of curation, Pearson poses the question of what it means to “read” a text that reveals itself primarily as image when it is not the only work of its kind.
The title of It is Almost That is borrowed from a slideshow included in the volume by Theresea Hak Kyung Cha. Cha is best known for her text-art novel Dictée (1982), a harbinger of the recent surge in experimental memoir. Like Dictée, It is Almost That (1977), designed on black paper with white press-type, explores the effect of point of view in the project of personal narration. The piece is composed of fragments and does not offer the reader the satisfaction of narrative or declaration. Like many of the pieces contained in this book, it incites “more questions than answers.”
A vigorous commitment to conceptual practice unites the artists, no matter how different the content of their work. All pieces contained in the volume are by women, including several key performance artists from the genre’s boldest era, among them Hannah Weiner, Adrian Piper and Ann Hamilton. Alison Knowles’s “A House of Dust” (1968), an exercise in randomly generated content, appears as what is arguably the first computer generated poem. Eleanor Antin’s “Domestic Peace,” a graphic notation of the artist’s emotional responses to conversations with her mother during a visit in December 1971, reveals the degree of friction between the two women that arises over mundane topics.
Some works in this collection pursue questions related to the writing process. In particular, the work of Bernadette Mayer, Bhanu & Rohini Kapil, Cole Swensen & Shari Degraw and Fiona Banner provoke a conversation about the relationship between facts and evidence. Jane Hammond’s “Fallen” (2004–), a series of paper leaves reproduced in color that carry the handwritten names of deceased American soldiers, attempts a symbolic documentation of a specific loss. When this anthology was published there was a pile of more than four thousand different paper leaves comprising the work.
Helen Kim’s “What Remains” (2006) is composed of photographs and text panels that chronicle one Korean family’s life in the United States. Images of empty plates, restaurant takeout containers and notes on napkins do not explicitly reveal any personal history except the sense that a person or group of people have just been missed, perhaps forever, by bad timing, or misinterpretation. Kim’s assemblage makes a powerful statement about how consumer culture overshadows our most intimate interactions.
All of the texts in the book are printed in black and white, despite that seven of the works were originally designed in color. Pearson notes the significance of her editorial decision: “Gray is the color of ambiguity, of it’s almost that, of infinite shading, of the in-between like twilight and shadows, of the merging of the white of the page and the black of the printed text. Gray is, when reading, unseen but sensed (the figurative gray is always there in the best work).” This makes sense for pieces that were originally created in black and white, though for those works originally created in color, the imposition of gray scale may overstate the metaphor.
Some flatness intrinsic to the form of the anthology makes the body of work come across a little more like literature rather than visual art. And the juxtaposition of such different creative impulses can make it easy to forget that these pieces were once hard to classify. Even when presented in gray scale, many of the works have little in common with each other. This may have to do with the fact that each piece is governed by its own rules, which tend to be based in personal aesthetics rather than the collaborative ideas of a movement or group of artists. A couple of the pieces seem under-realized compared to other works in the anthology.
For example, Hannah Wiener’s “Pictures and Early Words” (1972), which attempts to translate visions of words appearing in thin air and falling around her into a typescript, reads more like an annotated diary than visual art. The few pages presented from Fiona Banner’s “The Nam” (1997), a book of descriptions about six well-known films on the Vietnam War, look like bad photocopies: fat, blank margins showing around the edges of the book and the white space between the dense type appearing unevenly grainy and smudged.
While most of pieces presented in It is Almost That are nuanced enough to earn careful study, it is a bit disappointing that a more extensive commentary is not included, given that a lack of little critical attention may have contributed to their initial disregard. The upside of this lack of analysis is that there is no distraction from the works, which demand new ways of reading, each in their own imaginative and often playful ways.
It is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists and Writers is edited by Lisa Pearson and available at Siglio Press and other online booksellers.