Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery
Barbara Kruger, "Untitled" (SmashUp), 2016
Barbara Kruger, "Untitled" (SmashUp), 2016, site-specific installation at the Vancouver Art Gallery
The neoclassical rotunda in the Vancouver Art Gallery is nothing if not stately, and it’s here, as part of MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture, the massive gallery-wide survey of a century of boundary bashing, that viewers can find the exhibition’s boldest statement about the intersection of art and text. Pithy phrases in giant capital letters cover the floor and walls above and below the circular stairway in the former provincial courthouse – a visual onslaught that challenges viewers and subverts the space’s architectural features.
American artist Barbara Kruger’s site-specific installation is rife with claustrophobic tension. On one wall, “THE GLOBE SHRINKS” blares like a garish headline, transmitting her decades-long interest in how text and architecture construct people’s understandings of the world, particularly within commerce and entertainment. “I try to make art about how we are to one another,” Kruger told the Georgia Straight newspaper in February as she installed the piece. “I try to be vigilant about how power works, and my choice of text and my choice of images are a reflection – as all art is in some way or another – of the culture that constructs and contains it.”
Kruger’s domination of the gallery’s central conduit is also a powerful metaphor about the role text has played in contemporary art. While this piece represents the vision of just one artist, albeit an important international one, many Canadian artists also use written language in their work. Approaches have varied. Some camouflage cursive within their visuals, while others let word and image co-exist as distinct societies, much like the text bubbles in comics.
Courtesy the artist and Odon Wagner Contemporary
Pierre Coupey, "Field III," 2010-2012
Pierre Coupey, "Field III," 2010-2012, oil on canvas over panel, 36" x 36"
Written language can be found in many disciplines, even ones as seemingly unlikely as photography and video. Nor are traditional disciplines like painting immune from the tug to text. Pierre Coupey, a Vancouver poet and painter, views his diptychs as facing pages of a book. “I’ve always thought of a painting as a kind of writing, whether there’s actual language in it or not,” he says. “That you are writing something – that it is a script, it is a narrative, it is a story. I think what interests me most now is the invisibility of it and the illegibility of it.”
Courtesy Peter Robertson Gallery, Edmonton
Alice Teichert, "Con Text," 2012
Alice Teichert, "Con Text," 2012, acrylic and crayon on canvas, 68" x 48"
A similar impulse is perhaps at play for Alice Teichert, who exhibited her paintings recently at the Peter Robertson Gallery in Edmonton. She is interested in what she calls “that curious space between perception and interpretation” and creates glyph-like inscriptions amidst coloured glazes that she describes as “ripples of a language dancing in space, water and time.” A more graphic approach can be found in the work of Vancouver painter Bratsa Bonifacho, a formalist known for his colourful grids of printed letters.
Bruce Grenville, senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, links the fascination with text over the last century to two key developments. The first was a growing interest in the everyday as reflected through the material qualities of ordinary objects. Text, in this context, such as the bits of newspaper that Pablo Picasso included in his early collages, can be a way to refer to some mundane aspect of daily life.
Briar Craig, "Deserve What You Want," 2014
Briar Craig, "Deserve What You Want," 2014, ultra-violet screen print, 28” x 40”
Echoes of this impulse can be seen today in the work of printmaker Briar Craig, a professor at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna, who uses scraps of text to construct new visual narratives. “For a number of years, I have been photographing and collecting a reserve of visual flotsam and jetsam – rusty signs, advertisements, graffiti, fragments of text, decontextualized photographs, textured surfaces, found objects, television images, etc. – things from a predominantly urban environment we encounter so frequently they are almost no longer visible to us,” he says.
The second development Grenville cites is the influence of French intellectuals, particularly the so-called post-structuralists, people like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who considered how language shapes the way people understand the world. Ian Wallace, one of Vancouver’s leading contemporary artists, is a prime example of someone influenced by literary theory. His classic 1979 work, Image/Text, is composed of 12 panels of photographs and text that consider the studio as a site to produce conceptual art. The work’s title refers to a collection of essays by Roland Barthes, another French post-structuralist.
Image courtesy of Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver Photo: SITE Photography.
Ron Terada, "Jack," 2013
Ron Terada, "Jack," 2013, acrylic on canvas,70” x 5”, Installation view, "Jack," Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver, 2014
A younger Vancouver artist engaged with text who remains mindful of the conceptual thrust in art is Ron Terada. His Jack paintings of 2011 replicate word-for-word pages from the autobiography of Jack Goldstein, a relatively unknown Canadian-born artist who was based in Los Angeles until his death in 2003. Terada’s work comments on identity, documentation and minimalism.
Prairie artists interested in text have also been influenced by conceptual art. In Calgary, language has long been prominent in the work of John Will, a former professor at the University of Calgary. One of his recent bodies of work reflects on the theme of “nothing.” In Winnipeg, Sylvia Matas’ work includes Two days of rain, which features newspapers altered to show only words related to weather, and This year or next, with similarly altered pages that refer to time and its passage. Another Winnipeg artist, Andrea Roberts, recently made Political Will Tenuously Sister Okay, a hypnotic yet disorienting video that combines voice and disjunctive text that refers to economic disaster and sexual liberation.
Some critics say the inclusion of text makes art too explicit. But Saskatchewan printmaker Robert Truszkowski, who teaches at the University of Regina, disagrees. “To say that text is easy – in the sense of its ability to make a point that trumps all other attempts at visual communication around it – is to succumb to sloth,” he says.
In Art, Word and Image: Two Thousand Years of Visual/Textual Interaction, art historian John Dixon Hunt discusses the brain’s division of labour – the right hemisphere is responsible for visual processing, while the left manages verbal information – and the different approaches various cultures have used to manage the relationship between text and image. Chinese characters, for instance, often include visual references, while images and hieroglyphics march side-by-side in ancient Egyptian tombs. But, on the other hand, Islam prohibits illustrations of religious stories.
It’s tempting to wonder if the emergence of written language created a liminal zone in the human brain, a richly productive area between the old embodied way of knowing, and a more distanced form of communication. Whatever the case, it’s certainly an interesting time to think about the interface between word and image. Experts note that reading styles are shifting with the digital age. People are scanning more, their eyes darting restlessly across backlit screens, and attention spans are shrinking.
Grenville says the use of text in visual art is also changing. For one thing, it’s harder now to pry text apart from image because artists are increasingly using digital tools to make their work. Kruger, for instance, relied on technology to fit her text into various planes of the gallery’s rotunda. But even artists who emphasize the material qualities of text, like those using the old-fashioned letterpress, often plan their work on a computer.
“I think language becomes much more malleable and much more physical, in an odd reversal, or at least potentially it is in the hands of some artists,” says Grenville. “Or it has a kind of a uniformity that maybe it really didn’t have before. It seemed you could separate language from other forms of expression. Or text from other forms of expression. And now it’s very difficult to see where the dividing line is.”
The Text of Art
Just as visual artists like to work with text, writers have returned the love. Poets, in particular, not only write poems about paintings and other forms of art, but also devise poetry that is quite visual.
Such concrete poetry, as it’s sometimes known, can be printed in shapes that duplicate the poem’s subject, a tree-shaped poem about a tree, for instance, or can take more complex forms such as flow charts or even three-dimensional structures.
Then there’s ekphrastic poetry, a term taken from Greek rhetoric that refers to writing that describes a work of art. A noted example is Ode on a Grecian Urn, in which John Keats reflects on the beauty of young love. Another is Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems by William Carlos Williams, a book that won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1963.
In the final section of her 2014 book, Asking, Edmonton’s Shawna Lemay composed what she calls poem-essays about different ways to write about art. “I’m interested in art, and writing about art is an opportunity to carry the thinking about seeing further,” says Lemay, who is married to painter Robert Lemay. “I like the contemplative side of ekphrasis, the long meditation on a work. When you look at a painting and it really affects you but you don’t exactly know why, sitting with it poetically is a wonderful exercise in understanding.”
Other Canadian poets who have explored the form include Stephanie Bolster, Anne Carson, George Bowering, Anne Compton and Anne Simpson.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, purchase, Canadian Artworks Acquisition FundPhoto: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Brian Merrett
Jean Jean Paul Lemieux, "The Far West," 1955
Jean Paul Lemieux, "The Far West," 1955, oil on canvas, 22” x 52”
LE FAR-WEST (1955)
A few acres of snow. In a Montréal
December I come upon your few feet
of west, a tawny field grazed on
by some animals. They might be
antelope and this some view of
Africa – or cows and Idaho? What
cowboy hat do you imagine
my umbrella is? You have not gone
far enough, your English Bay a mouth
drawn shut, its trees cowering
under an enormous Québec
sky I cannot write, my words
small glimpses between
this branch of fir and that. How west
must have threatened to open
you. My pages nearly white
these days, I’m shutting up.
That “I” I write no longer me
but you, alone in the midst of what
I call nothing and you home.
From Deux personnages dans la nuit: poems from paintings by Jean Paul Lemieux in Two Bowls of Milk, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1999