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December 12, 2007

Text Art

From Dada to conceptualism, avant-garde artists have mined the phonetic and visual possibilities of language, exploring its singular importance in human interaction. Carrying the fascination with text art forward from the '60s and '70s, contemporary artists are embracing language as a means of analyzing culture. Offering a site for contemplation, contemporary text-based art reflects on everyday manifestations of language in mass media, signage, and literature.

With a bold palette of red, black, and white, Barbara Kruger's signature works use advertising tactics to present messages with subversive agendas. Lambasting consumerism and conservative political agendas alike, Kruger's stark images speak terse slogans, such as her iconic proclamation "I shop therefore I am." Adrian Piper tackles similar issues of identity politics by hijacking visual strategies from minimalism and conceptualism. Challenging the earlier dry, male-dominated methodologies of the '60s and '70s, her 1980 It's Just Art series features disarming observations on race and gender written in cartoon thought bubbles. Also investigating language and racial identity, Glenn Ligon renders quotes from sources as varied as Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Pryor in the heavily symbolic materials of oilstick and coal dust.

Employing quotations of a different kind, Chinese artist Xu Bing attempts to write a novel using only international icons in his project Book from the Ground. Modeled after hieroglyphics and Mandarin characters, Xu Bing's pictograms bridge cultural boundaries by embracing contemporary visual shortcuts. Generating free-form literature, Allen Ruppersberg weaves a winding plot using posters from fairgrounds and rock shows for his ongoing installation piece The Novel That Writes Itself. British artist Olivia Plender embraces the aesthetic of underground comics and DIY publishing with her epic narrative of graphite drawings, The Masterpiece, in which she combines comic-book cells and film-noir pacing to question preconceived notions of artistic genius.

Other artists focus more on text as a visual design element. Lou Laurita's gouaches on paper present giant words filled with sentimental images of ponies, butterflies, and half-naked couples, with the textual statement adding surprising contrast to the imagery. Drawing on her training as a professional sign painter, Tauba Auerbach creates meticulous works on paper and sculptures that rearrange the graphic elements of letters and codes to reveal their fragile structural components. Dan Miller, an artist who works at Creative Growth Art Center, reaches beyond the limitations of his autism to create intricate layers of words that resemble elegant birds' nests, emphasizing the abstract visual pleasure of language. By using language in art, either to explore embedded meanings or visual patterns, artists expose an ever-present, often subliminal force that constantly shapes our lives.


Barbara Kruger's early work is on view at Mary Boone Gallery in New York through December 22; Glenn Ligon: Some Changes is on view at the Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean in Luxembourg through February 19; and New York's Elizabeth Dee Gallery is mounting an exhibition of Adrian Piper's work in March 2008.

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