Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Wordage" @ DAM

Over the last couple of years, the Detroit Artists Market has served up a consistently solid schedule of curated group shows. The one that's on view right now, "Wordage" curated by Jack O. Summers, is a really good one even when considered in light of the high standard DAM has set.

"Wordage" features 25 artists whose work engages text in one way or another. And there isn't a bad piece in the lot. Also on view in the Elements Gallery is Ryan Asplund, whose works on paper take their cue from medieval illuminated manuscript and thus fit right in.

In fact, working from Asplund and on through the rest of the show you get a compendium of the evolution of literacy (as a broad cultural phenomenon replacing primordial orality, to use Walter Ong's dialectic), from the handmade manuscript character to mass-reproduced print to its eventual deconstruction in the hypertext of the digital age.

Before anyone in America heard of Jacques Derrida, deconstruction was being practiced literally as it were by William S. Burroughs in his "cut-up" method. Christine Monhollen mines that lode while at the same time paying homage to late artist Paul Schwarz, whose geometrically faceted black-and-white paintings her pieces resemble. The visuality of text becomes primary; what's being "said" less so. (As Marshall McLuhan asserts, the written word is an extension of the eye, replacing the ear as the primary information-gathering organ. And the "content" of one medium is another medium, in the case of print it's the written word which in turn captured speech.)

The binary digit has effectively eliminated the difference between text and image (and sound for that matter) and several artists use the capabilities of various desktop publishing programs to different ends. Andrea Eis seamlessly mixes text and image with the assistance of PhotoShop, though she's been at it since way before the days of digital convergence. Israel Davis draws a line across the ages from the present back to the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia, using screen printing to transfer images onto clay tablets.

The written word becomes content for the painters in the group. In the case of Jaye Schlesinger it's rendered transparently in photorealistic images of street signs, shopping bags, and other environments. The word stands alone sandwiched in between other images in a multi-panel, expressionistic work by Lynn Galbraith that's installed high on a wall near the front windows. Dick Goody is more playful, using the word to almost but not quite illuminate the quotidian.

As this is Detroit, there are a number of works using words as part of complex assemblages made from scavenged and otherwise mashed-up components. Julie Renfro continues her delirious meditations on the sublime and the tacky with a fake-jewel encrusted miniature shrine to self-help. Catherine Peet performs similar feats with a somewhat larger work that evokes a church altarpiece. Loralei R. Byatt is more of a minimalist, using just a few castoffs to embellish an oversize photographic self-portrait.

More conceptual approaches are taken by Ryan Standfest, who in one piece uses an iPod projection of a striptease to reference what feminists term "scopophilia" (the love of looking that encodes images with the male as beholder and female as beholden), and Stephen William Schudlich, whose Blight extends his investigation of the ruin as rune, with deliquescent Detroit as Exhibit A.

If a theme can be said to run through "Wordage," it's a resistance to the media bombardment of the spectacle society in which we live, a hyperactive world in which we are fed more and more stuff that seems to mean less and less. Each artist in his or her own way asks us to slow down and consider what's in front of us. It's more than a welcome respite.

"Wordage" continues at Detroit Artists Market, 4179 Woodward Ave. at Forrest, until July 24. Call 313 832 8540 for information. Photo credit: Above, "Wordage" installation view by Jack O. Summers.


  1. Hot damn, it's nice to have some meaty writing going on. Thanks, Vince.

  2. This is really wonderful Vince! Congrats on your Kresge Fellowship. Kudos also to Jack O. Summers who curated this exhibition.

  3. Thanks, Vince, for a wonderful review. Jack created something magical in assembling this group of artists. I want to print this essay and view the show again with your words in hand.

    You certainly deserve the Kresge Prize.

  4. A treat to read smart, thoughtful writing about what's going on in Detroit's art show - and on a show i'd really like to see/read! An education as always, Vince. I'll stay tuned - even from afar. - Nick

  5. All, thanks for the kind words. It helps to have good work to write about. And there's plenty of it in the Motor City these days. Be sure to sign up (using the Friend Connect button @ the top of the page) to receive update messages when new things are posted. Saw the MOCAD show finally and will do something on that in the next couple of days. In the meantime, tell your friends to check out the blog. And thank the folks @ The Kresge Foundation for helping to make it possible.

  6. BTW, yesterday (the date the Wordage review was posted) was Bastille Day. The French Revolution in part was made possible by the explosion of pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, and such that helped to create a critical mass of people sharing thoughts and ultimately action. The Internet is the medium for that kind of message these days. That's a major reason I'm here.