by Patrick Gantert
In the circulation of contemporary art, language and text are materials that not only mediate the way works are viewed but draw focus away from or complicate an object. Artist descriptions, didactics, and gallery tags have always been rife with potential. But due in part to a turn towards the internet for image dispersion, the relationship between that language and the thing it describes is considerably more fibrous. In her essay ‘Flatland’, from the recent ‘Art’ issue of The New Inquiry, Loney Abrams offers a concrete summation of the (unavoidable) push towards digital platforms for viewing art:
‘The digital image is supplanting the art object. All works, regardless of their material constituents, are flattened, scaled down to several hundred pixels. Consequently, the digital photographic image can be understood as the homogenizing, ubiquitous medium of our era.’
Said plainly, more people are seeing artwork online. Primarily through websites that collect and highlight shows and artists across the world like Contemporary Art Daily, VVORK (RIP), or I Like This Art. Understandably common for these sites and sites like them is their relationship to text, usually just a title, medium, and year but more and more often an entire press release or set of linked keywords, networking the image through its contingent text. With this, something interesting happens in that the oft ignored or, in the case of press releases, maligned text becomes a more central and implicated point of contact for the deconstruction of any given work. Simply, language is placed and digitally fixed in proximity to the thing it describes, in some cases to the point of overshadowing.
A few key factors are at play in this experience, all of which are not so different from the way that we might describe an object or show: size, proximity, and container. Size of course pertains to the actual scale of the text in relation to the image, which, in almost all cases, is notably different from the text’s immensity in a physical space. This simple shift, though still prioritizing the work, pushes a title or description forward as a column or line, embedded (sometimes disruptively) into the space of an image. And size pertains not only to the point of the font but also to its mass as a block of text. In talking with a friend of mine the other day on gchat, we realized that our understanding of length is conditioned less by word count and more by the size of the blue blob in the scroll bar. Finally, there is proxemics, where does this text lie in relation to the image and how much space does it claim? Like a close talker in Seinfeld, writing tends to really get in there these days, often to the point that the image itself functions more as a pothole that the words avoid on their way down the page, slaloming in and out of details and installation views. But proxemics work differently depending on the container through which something is viewed--is it on the actual website or is it on Facebook, in a tiny status link? Is it in an RSS feed (RIP Google Reader) or, God forbid, a PDF? These different spaces dictate the layout and force both type and image into constrained, truncated, and tight quarters.
So what is the effect? It is safe to say that viewing this way makes space for exploration and indeed some artists have been onto it for years.
Since 2009, The Jogging has disseminated their work via Tumblr in a style that is predicated on immediacy and reaction. At base a collective, submissions are accepted on a rolling basis which expands the network of contribution far outside the boundaries of a founding group. Submission requirements are an image, an italicized title, the medium, and an ‘abstract symbol linking back to your website’. A recent post by Michael Senise, an image of a gorilla hitting a bong titled King Bong, and the related posts that follow illustrate the generative tendencies of the project. Senise’s initial image winds its way through iterations ranging from a banner on the side of a building to an image that appears, like the face of Christ, in cappuccino foam. With this visual shift comes a textual one, transforming an image from an installation to an epiphany and back again until the long tail of re-appropriation tapers (which it eventually will). This is just one example of what is now probably thousands that demonstrates an awareness of a specific unity between text and image that is part and parcel of The Jogging’s brand.
Press releases are effectively just veiled sales tools, pumping up the concept and worth of work that is the critical equivalent of a fart in church. But there is possibility for the press release to rise above the task that is its call. No more are press releases reserved for the space of deleted e-mail blasts and 8.5 x 11 sun bleached takeaways. No, they now accompany a 20 image grid, a self guided walk through of a show 1500 miles away that you’ll never see in person, retrofitted as a convenient accompaniment to viewing. A total package.
Darren Bader’s recent show at Blum & Poe LA, Heaven and Earth, was a collusion of paired objects, augmented by titles that imply a kind of linguistic ultimatum: (Object) with/and (Object) (or the reverse, and/with). An intellectual choose your own adventure so to speak. Similar to The Jogging, Bader’s use of language here implies an understanding of a much larger capacity for the generally obligatory title. Instead of offering a simple description to illuminate any conceptual underpinnings that may help to unpack his combinations, Bader sets up a game of linguistic and visual back and forth that leads to a possible conclusion: The objects themselves are irrelevant or at least secondary. Timely surrogates for tricky language. The titles invert a prescribed and reliable relationship. All of this is tethered to a press release that encapsulates the value of pairs, binaries, and parallel relationships; A work in itself that, along with the titles, does the majority of the heavy lifting and benefits from sandwiching installation views.
Beyond these examples, both of which rely on a digital space to varying degrees, we see some artists exploiting the aforementioned textual tendencies in a physical space. Josh Abelow’s current show at James Fuentes is a prime example. Abelow incorporates references to his blog, ART BLOG ART BLOG, and the actual title of his show, Abelow on Delancey, directly into the paintings, blurring a line between work and container and their respective tasks. The titles bend and swirl around a goofy stick figure, an avatar for Abelow. Furthering all of this is a stack of takeaways created as an extension of ART BLOG ART BLOG. Abelow pulls the disparate portions of distribution together to create something that reflects a necessary awareness of the way he is perceived. Jamian Juliano Vilani follows a similar strategy in her work but complicates her titles by pulling them away from their traditional role. Existing as yearbook titles, candy brands, denim companies, and invented Dub albums, the text in her paintings is pulled away from purpose, transformed into something that elevates and carries her work conceptually. In this sense, it deviates to become, in certain cases, almost entirely embedded and integrated into her images creating a perfect and total synergy.
This is all to say that there is more potential for those institutionally prescribed portions of text to get their groove back. This is steering towards a larger point; There is space for experimentation that isn’t simply aesthetic. To tweak the roles of press releases and titles is to subtly subvert a long standing model, one that drives an older economy which is increasingly irrelevant to younger artists. There are ample and underused resources in the image/text relationship and never has there been a more prime time to capitalize.