What's in a word? More meanings than we might assume, if we consider the myriad ways in which artists in the California Biennial explore the use and misuse of words. The exhibition, at the Orange County Museum of Art through March 13, includes about a dozen such examples out of more than 40 artists selected by museum curator Sarah Bancroft. "A lot of people think art is a visual experience, but it engages many senses," she says. "For me it's often an intellectual experience, and it seems very much natural that text and language would be incorporated into artwork. Text has a gravity — so many of these works have poignant senses of humor or are whimsical, and are also critical at once."
Some of the artists capture what they have found in public, such as Will Rogan in his "Other Worlds" series in which he sought out and photographed storefront signs. Gil Blank plays with signs also, although he manipulates them through the computer, enhancing certain details and deleting others. Allison Wiese has created her own sign, a 28-foot-wide green awning with orange text, which asks, "So what are we going to do now?"
Some use words to help us see context and subtext. For his project, Camilo Ontiveros proposed allowing anyone identified as "an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States" into the Biennial for free — playing off the Arizona law regarding the identification of illegal immigrants. His proposal and the OCMA board's response (no way, for it would be a form of discrimination) will be on display.
Below, four L.A. artists talk about their text-based art.
BARRY MACGREGOR JOHNSTON
During an earlier visit to the museum, Johnston saw and asked for a doorway with an exit sign over it. "I wanted to work with the doorway," the artist says. "I feel that throughout this work there are themes of exit, of disappearance, leaving the body and social norms. I wanted to ceremonialize, to formalize this exit sign. I often talk in my work about spiritual thresholds, the possibility that at any moment we are crossing thresholds and leaving the boundaries of our identity, redefining ourselves."
In his installation he has covered the top and sides of the doorway with drawings and paintings on paper and on fabric, incorporating words in several sections. Two pieces of the paper depict hands becoming flames, and the words "house party," "wild boys" and "wild girls" within them. Another piece, on gray paper with white hand-lettering, is borrowed from the lines of Cinna the Poet, in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" — thus Cinna's response to an interrogation of who he is and what he is about becomes, "my fantasy leads me / forth of doors / forth to fly / and do animal things."
Johnston also writes his own poetry, and sometimes reads and sings his verses in nightclubs and house parties. "For me dealing with language is the most pressing thing I have to do," he says. "Humans are the beast with language, so much of our mental activity and our relationship with the world and each other are structured by language."
Fowler is interested in themes of visibility, which all three of her works in the Biennial touch upon. Two involve text.
In the collage "A Single Image is Not Splendor," the words are spelled out with letters formed from cutting pages out of Playboy magazines. The phrase is from Gertrude Stein's "Tender Buttons," a book praised for using words more for their sounds and cadences than for their meaning. However, when Fowler read it, she didn't find the words meaningless, but coded. "I'm thinking the language is so queer, so inherently gay."
Another work is an installation, made up of small stacks of books, wrapped in custom-made paper and arranged on a long table. The title is really part of the work, says Fowler, and lists each book's title, author, publisher and occasional excerpts.
"This is a little library that I made from books that I bought from the ONE library, a gay and lesbian archive at USC," Fowler says. She says she feels a certain reverence for the authors, who were writing during more repressive times. "Queer politics and feminist politics have really changed, but those people led us to the changes in very positive ways."
Grant followed her well-reviewed solo show of text-based work at MOCA in 2007 with a solo at Honor Fraser in 2008. At the latter she continued her exploration of text in six large-scale works on paper that dealt with the senses, with mirror-image words highlighted in bubbles that seemed to float and cluster in space; three of these are in the Biennial. "I was always interested in language," she says, "because of growing up and going between nations, (Mexico and the U.S.) and being very much a reader as a child."