In 1914, the Italian Futurist Marinetti published Zang Tumb Tumb, a sort of war memoir in which whizzing, onomatopoetic typography aspired to be action and image, not mere description.
After the novelist Robert Walser died, his archive of postcards and envelopes covered in tiny pencil marks was discovered. They were published in visual art magazines before someone with a magnifying glass realized that the marks were actually stories written in a coded microscript. The artists Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman both made names for themselves with text-intensive works in the '60s, the former glib and working in paint, the latter shamanic and working in neon. All of these artists used different distortions—of format, scale and context, respectively—to make us see text, that most common and prosaic of media, with new eyes. In short, the modern visual artist who wishes to incorporate text has deep history to draw upon and contend with.
The current show at Raleigh's Lump Gallery features 22 artists from around the nation interpreting the theme of "Text as Image." As a sort of pacesetter and credibility lender, there's a small collage by the great pop artist Ray Johnson, which is pleasantly mysterious and historically interesting. But it's hardly the show's high point.
The major dilemma for each artist seems to have been whether to approach text as an aesthetic object—complete in and of itself—or a semiotic vessel, which only refers. While it has a few weak spots, the fascinating show proves the conflict has plenty of life left in it, especially as multimedia technology violently shifts our relationships to text and images by inundation and recombination.
The least successful pieces approach text neither aesthetically nor semiotically. Instead, they content themselves with the tired post-Ruscha gambit of flatly rendering a vague statement or advertising motif, as if that sort of basic appropriation had a drop of interest left in it. Joshua Abelow's painting features the words "Lazy and Shallow" with inelegant caps over a solid background. It divulges a quick punch line and nothing more. It is not pretty to look at. The artist is mildly poking fun at himself, but with the painting priced at $1,600, the joke's on us. The viewer might be compelled to go home and paint a maxim of his or her own: TRY HARDER.
The siren song of mysterious sloganeering is difficult to resist; it represents the path of least resistance—grafting text into an image is far easier than making text into an image unto itself. But many of the slogan-based pieces succeed on the strength of their craft and design. Laura Sharp Wilson's two entries, "People Feed Me Free Dreams" and "Drone On," are lovely. The former suspends its text in a graceful weave of lines; the latter partially dissolves it in granular blues. They're looking pieces, not thinking pieces, and they make for nice oases in a show that tends to be more cerebral. Along the same lines, Harrison Haynes' "Including We Had it All" refracts a fragment of language on a sign around a central axis, as if in a prism, emphasizing the forms of the words in watery pastels without surrendering an inch of their poignancy.
Then there are the pieces that offer more food for thought, but to the detriment of aesthetics. Some very fine pieces fall in this category, especially Michael Salter's vinyl installation. Emblazoned directly on one of the white walls, it makes that part of the gallery look like a race car covered in sponsorship decals. The work can't be said to be beautiful—in fact, depending on your level of discomfort with the language of commerce, it can be downright ugly—but it was the first piece I saw that really lit a fuse in my mind. The vinyl decals are quite plausible logos and slogans for invented products and companies, and they are impossible to come to grips with. They swarm the viewer with associations and meanings, even though they're so broad and vague as to be functionally meaningless. The piece triggers an acute awareness of how thoroughly trained we've become to react viscerally and credibly to the hollow, manipulative images and language of marketing. It's the kind of cognitive jolt that, in lieu of beauty, makes a work of art worthwhile.
But the very best pieces don't stint on beauty or meaning, form or content: They draw them all into a conjoined realm where they work in concert. I really liked EJ Hauser's deceptively simple "Puff Sequence," which features words in white—some readable, like "BLACK MOUNTAIN," others appearing to be meaningless jumbles of letters—obscured by thin bands of blue and white and red. Its near-legibility is beguiling, like not being able to quite make out an important, compelling message in a dream.
Amy White, an Indy contributor, offers the show's most ambitious piece: an assemblage of shelved objects and paintings that only features fragments of text mounted alongside jars of local dirt and rainwater, White's bottled hair, notebooks, blank Polaroids and other precisely numbered and arranged items. A row of photographs of Joseph Cornell is apt. It's as if one of his boxes of mysterious talismans took over a wall. In careful, line-by-line groupings—five of these, then two of these, then five more of these—the objects come to seem like letters, relaying a message we could understand if only we spoke bottle-and-dirt instead of English. The show flips on its head, with images acting like text.
The central paradox of the show is that it's impossible to address text as image, because text is image. The space between is imaginary, a miasma of interpretations and imposed relationships that is fertile territory for artists. "Text as Image" reminds us that the only thing separating words from pictures, which we usually regard as so distinct, is the viewer's perspective. Don't believe me? Look what happens to this column of text when you slightly cross your eyes.