Friday, March 20, 2009

Words and Art

What are words worth?
Published March 7, 2009 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

It’s a rap race, with a fast pace
Concrete words, abstract words
Crazy words and lying words
Hazy words and dying words
Words of faith and tell me straight
Rare words and swear words
Good words and bad words
What are words worth?
What are words worth? - words

--lyrics from “Wordy Rappinghood” by Tom Tom Club

Forgive me for overstating the obvious, but words, when combined with images, can make a powerful statement. The controversial and recently litigated red-white-and-blue “HOPE” poster depicting a visionary Barack Obama, which was distributed grassroots-style on buttons, stickers and Websites during last year’s presidential election, is a good example. AP photographer Mannie Garcia’s photo (used by street artist Shepard Fairey without his or the AP’s permission) was transformed into a potent piece of propaganda, which spread like wildfire across American. The photograph—shot at a routine press conference—took on new life and meaning, chiefly because of the addition of one charismatic word--HOPE.

As a former press photographer myself, the advantages of combining words with images is not a new notion—although news photographers try to stick to the facts and avoid subjective commentary in their captions. Words can provide context and information that the photo, all by itself, might not provide.

There’s a great new coffee table-sized book, Scrapbooks: An American History by Jessica Helfand, which traces the history of scrapbooking from Victorian times to the present, with you-can-almost-smell-the-mildew presentation and insightful commentary. As an art critic, Helfand examines specific scrapbooks and looks for the stories each one tells about ordinary and extraordinary lives within the larger context of social change in America.

One vintage scrapbook she examines, kept by a theater manager from Philadelphia, chronicles a grand tour he took with his wife in 1909 from Western Europe to Egypt and Greece. Helfand is disappointed to find that the scrapbook—several pages of which are featured in her book—lacks any personal details, such as handwriting, captions, or personal observations of any kind. She says “it testifies to…the degree to which a beautiful scrapbook, if only made of scraps, ultimately rendered one’s extravagant experience devoid of any overt emotionality”—(which I am quite guilty of in my own scrapbooking efforts). Personal observations can transform an impersonal travelogue into something one-of-a kind and historically significant.

Art museum pieces are typically identified by words--a title typed on a small rectangle of cardboard, adhered to an adjacent wall or platform. An artwork’s title, even though it may be physically separated, might actually be an integral part of the piece. Jerry Ross Barrish--whose found object assemblages can be seen at The Museum of Art & History (MAH) through April 5—uses “…the lowest caste in the hierarchy of debris”—plastic scrap—to make empathetic, playful, figurative sculptures. Barrish also creates titles that confirm what you may already have suspected, and make you smile with recognition at his interpretation, such as “Adam and Eve”, “Another Gothic,” “Horse by Committee,” and “Last Supper.”

I’ve always been a bit reluctant to use words in my own art, growing up in an era when “Hang in their baby” kitten-hanging-from-a-clothesline posters were considered chic. But, more recently, I’ve become a big fan of using words and printed matter in art, especially collage. If you still need winning over, start by seeing MAH’s current exhibit, Assemblage + Collage + Construction. For a fun exercise, I revisited the museum last Friday and cataloged the many ways in which words add an extra dimension to many of the pieces in the show:

(clockwise, above)
1. PLAYFULNESS: See Dag Weiser’s “Washer” construction made from cut-up cardboard cartons or Charlotte Kruk’s assemblage “Sees Worker Bee”
2. AMBIGUITY: See William Dole’s “Ways and Means” collage incorporating individual letters and words.
3. IMPORT: See Mark Shoney’s “PRAY Cord” made from used headsets or Elly Simmons mixed media “Humanity at Stake”
4. MYSTERY: See how Joseph Zirkir’s “Graphitification” which features pencil shavings and Chinese cookie fortunes creates ambiguity and mystery

(clockwise, below)
5. ELEGANCE: See Anne Easley’s mixed media “Bordeaux” which features antique quill pen letters in French
6. INTIMACY: See how Luis Guitierrez’s assemblage “Physiology” uses tiny words and phrases to draw you closer.
7. REVERENCE: See Jane Gregorius’s “Gridded Church #12,” which features strung squares cut from prayer books and a Bible
8. FORM: See how Tom Nakashima’s collage, “Stewart’s Sticks” used strips torn from phone books and stock market pages to create texture, shadow and pattern.

As an artist and a writer, I certainly feel more adept at the former than the latter. So my suggestion at this point would be wrap up your Sentinel reading, and head for the MAH or the Pajaro Valley Gallery, and let the powerful combination of images and words speak for itself.