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Signs of the Times

Group show explores the tenuous relationship between languages, representations, and meanings

Rebecca Katz' "I'm happy to be alive . . ."

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 4/15/2009

The standard histories of the development of language portray the move from symbolic representation--you signal "snake" by drawing one--to abstract representation (the letters "s-n-a-k-e") as a central breakthrough. The versatility of language systems gives them the ability to represent, however poorly, our senses, perceptions and even ideas. But language itself is a representation, as the nine artists in Letters, Words, and Phrases are all too eager to remind us. Collecting sculptors, photographers, printmakers, and mixed-media artists, the show imagines the potential of language to evoke more than itself, to make letters pictures once again.

Nowhere is this more clear than Susan Eder and Craig Dennis' photographs of letters in the sky. This series of works convey the evolution of the project, starting with "New Cloud Roman," which arranges cloud representations of all the letters in the alphabet along with numbers and a few typographical symbols. It's hard to tell whether the letters are the result of skywriting or digital manipulation or days and days of sky-watching, but the quick reduction of the clouds to letters suggests that it doesn't matter. Once one produces a complete typeface, the letters are in service of producing words. Eder and Dennis decide to spell "Nothing Lasts Forever" in one piece, and "Which Image Never Fades Away?" in another. Close examination reveals that the letters in these pieces are in fact reproductions of the letters in earlier pieces, which draws attention back to the words.

If the cloud letters prove, surprisingly, to be too individual and thus easily put in service as building blocks for language, Susan Brandt's mixed-media pieces explore the effect of reproducing letters and phrases to the point of incomprehensibility. In "Early, Mid and Late Recovery," three small panels, placed side by side, are covered with the repetition of a single phrase, as if it were written again and again as someone processes its meaning. Brandt begins with streams of "no" and the occasional "don't want to do that," moving toward "I'm angry," and then, finally, to "I can be happy. I'm happy." While the phrases are illustrative of the emotions expressed in the piece, its emotion comes through in the scribbled handwriting. In another piece, "Everything I Know I Learned From Television," so many white letters are written on a red-blue-green backdrop that the text becomes indecipherable.

Ruth Bowler's two sculptural works push against the inherent legibility of language even further. For her "Constructed Silence (like breathing)" she arranges inch-wide lead strips on a several-yards-long vertical plane, giving the piece the appearance of a sound wave, with only slight movements up or down due to the silence named in the title. In "Sedition," the largest work in the show, a large block of inverse white type blocks, like those used in Gutenberg's day, is set on the floor. If you were able to make a print based on the type, it would be clear what the seditious text says, but it's more difficult to read as the piece is, unless you have a mirror handy.

Much of the strength of the show comes from the juxtaposition of the works, which is particularly impressive given the gallery's location in the entrance hall of an arts building on the Goucher campus. Molly Springfield draws out the conceptual nature of Bowler's work in a series of hand-drawn photocopies, here of pages of a book that tells argue that to get "The Future of Art" we must "Look Back." The hint of politics in "Sedition" is amplified by Julie Marie Geare's more literal "15 years," which places the text "don't ask don't tell" where the stars should be on a drawing of an American flag. The materiality of "Constructed Silence (like breathing)" is echoed in R.L. Croft's sculptures, which use signage pulled from industrial sites and subway platforms as material for pieces that expose the wires and structures that make the signs legible.

Work by printmaker Rebecca Katz and painter Cara Ober takes the show's theme to one of its many logical ends in works that juxtapose words and images. In one of Katz's pieces, a flock of small birds gather on a sky-blue background, with the text "I don't want any unforeseen problems. I'm not neurotic. Do you think I'm neurotic" printed off to one side. The greeting card-like design of Katz's piece is echoed in some of Ober's work, but she appears to grow restless with the offsetting of text and image by the end of the series of new work, including more and more images that resist being described by the text. As much as you fight the reducibility of images of letters and phrases to linguistic signifiers, text comes back, asking to be read.

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