Now that social networks mainline information into our consciousness, we have to divide our attention into smaller portions in order to process it all. Information-producers have anticipated this, making easy-to-consume images that carry more of the content than text used to. Literacy has become at least as visual as it is textual, and messages have acquired more messy subtexts than we can comfortably be aware of.
How artists deal with complexities of message is the issue on display in the exhibition Word Up: The Intersection of Text and Image at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Word Up gathers the two-dimensional work of six youngish North Carolina artists. Mathew Curran, Lincoln Penn Hancock, Nathaniel Lancaster, Shaun Richards, Gabriel Shaffer and Derek Toomes use and critique the visual vocabulary of popular magazine covers, advertising, attention-grabbing signage, graffiti and the hybrid genre of comics.
Richards' "The Campaign" (2011), which occupies the featured central wall of the North Carolina Gallery, might not seem ironic enough if it weren't an election year. A metallic gold tank dominates a field of huge Ben-Day dots under the title stenciled in Deco lettering. The painting looks like a movie poster or book cover as opposed to an image of battle. Although the violence seems glorified, the political meaning of the title provides an edge suggesting that the battles between candidates might have higher stakes than those fought with conventional weapons.
"Collusion" (2011), another of Richards' Ed Ruscha-like paintings, is even more subtle and affecting. At first glance, it's a blurry portrait of a young woman in a pink dress seated bareback on a white horse at the edge of a forest clearing, with the title in pink glitter script stretching the width of the canvas across her face. Clippings from women's magazines are just visible in the background reading "Is it true blondes have more fun?" and "Betrayed by my innocence." It takes an extra moment, however, to see a terrifying, ghosted man's head looking out of the painting over the horse's rump. Suddenly the woman's no longer an innocent rider exploring a pastoral landscape. Instead she's pictorially forced into a patriarchal system, slumping under the weight of her own stereotype. It's then you feel the bite of the title, accusing you of playing your own role in this system by dint of your gaze.
Shaffer, who lives in Asheville, collages reclaimed papers such as old letters, sheet music and ledger pages complete with penciled figures to provide a surface for superimposed and altered scenes from comic books. The borderline-incomprehensible text of Shaffer's captions play foil to the apparent bluntness of Richards' title texts. In Shaffer's "Profane Goddess" (2012), a curvy, red-haired vixen in a purple bikini (rendered in ball-point pen) crawls toward the viewer saying "I have old women's secrets now, that had those of the young... and what had drowned a lover once, sounds like an old song."
There's a coded urgency to the woman's awkward, off-rhymed lyrics. Syntactically strange and spaced poorly ("loveronce" is run together), her words are too cryptic to mean much in even a lenient interpretation. This piece, with two others of Shaffer's, is one of the highlights of Word Up.
Lancaster complicates reading by placing barely legible graffiti across images. In "Here's to Coexistence" (2010), the Charlotte artist scrawls the title over a seated man with a flat yellow head. The man's disarming shrug offers some camaraderie in the face of incomprehensibility, but his facelessness threatens erasure. Raleigh-based Toomes' four understated pieces (which, along with Shaffer's, are underlit) from his recent "CMYK Series" wax nostalgic for a pre-media era when an image was just an image, however deluded that perspective was. Toomes' works recombine 1950s images of technical drawing and professional women with line art of roadside signage missing the business' name.
Also hailing from Raleigh, Lincoln Penn Hancock's mercilessly black enamel paintings from 2009the oldest work in the showreveal a sinister, toxic brashness in fair midway signage. A hallucinogenic yellow blimp reading "Funnel Cakes" seems to want to change to "Funeral Cakes" in handwritten chalk letters hovering in the blackness above.
Although hung in a location that makes them seem like an afterthought, Curran's three vintage Life covers, altered with his trademark spraypainted stencils, are more frightening than Hancock's fair paintings. The intricate black lines of Curran's stencils almost congeal into calligraphy disfiguring the faces of Jackie Kennedy, Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe into scarred Cubist masks. It's a harsh note to end the show on.
Once I finished looking at Word Up, the question in my mind had nothing to do with image and text: Where are the women in this show? Perhaps the NCMA is anticipating the Sept. 22 opening at CAM Raleigh of GirlTalk: Women and Text, which will run concurrent with Word Up. Whether or not the boy's club lineup is mere coincidence, it forces one to scrutinize how women are portrayed in Word Up.
Shaffer's buxom cartoon women have certainly stepped right out of a male fantasyland but his cryptic captions invest them with ritualistic intelligence and power. The office women in Toomes' work might recall the sexist Mad Men-era steno pool but they show a stage of social progress, screened on top of sewing patterns that reference uncapitalized labor in the home.
To my eye, the only works with possibly misogynistic tones are Curran's magazine covers. "Most Talked About," in which Taylor's profile is ravaged by Curran's black lineation while an unaltered Richard Burton faces the viewer, is sexually chilling. But Curran is augmenting the underlying misogyny in the Life covers in order to show how we warp and destroy female stars. In the Monroe image, Curran's black disfiguration, like eyeliner gone horribly wrong, transforms the ultimate sex symbol into someone obviously terrified of being looked at.
In any case, it would have been easy enough for the NCMA to have worked the word "male" into the show's subtitle to avoid the gender issue by dealing with it head-on. Although Word Up certainly doesn't silence women, six-zip is an ugly and unnecessary score.
Editor's note: This review was updated at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 9, with the addition of three paragraphs at the end that were cut from the print edition for reasons of space.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Smart mouths."