Perhaps the textual content of the art in this exhibition suggests an obvious aural interpretation of many of the works. But I think it’s worth considering a few in particular, both in terms of the sound of the process of creating the work as well as the “sound” of the finished piece. Lately I’ve been interested in the idea of what an artwork that does not contain a sound component might sound like. While many of us might be familiar with the scratching noise of a writing implement or charcoal on paper, or of a brush on canvas (see if you can tease out the sound of artist Mary McDonnell drawing red ink lines, in Linda Dusman’s composition SKRA), there are other fascinating sounds produced by all variety of unconventional artistic practices. I’m particularly enamored of the oddly musical recording of someone “typing” a poem by Seamus Heaney onto a Teflon-coated surface, using typewriter elements affixed to gloves, in Stefana McClure’s Digging (Death of a Naturalist). I feel like these are secret sounds, resonances that are seldom shared outside of the artist’s studio, much less with a viewer.
Then there is the sound of reading some of these artworks, either in one’s head or aloud. Suzanne Delehanty notes that the cadence of Richard Serra’s Verb List recalls the rhythmic compositions of the artist’s friend Philip Glass. And like Glass, just when things become predictable [“to support” “to hook” “to suspend”], Serra exchanges one note for another, [“of tension” “of gravity” “of entropy”]. We can also consider the sound of a ghostly narrator. I can’t help but imagine the reader of Molly Springfield’s Chapter IX sounding a little like a less strident Winston Churchill. And an audible element is critical to the full experience of Annabel Daou’s Constitution, in which Arabic letters are sequenced not to become a literal translation of the landmark US document but to somewhat awkwardly mimic the sounds of the English text when read out loud.
Finally, with a respectful nod to John Cage, we can consider almost anything a musical score. Listen to Nathan Altice’s sound pieces made in response to Jon Laxdal’s Diary Sheet works and Allyson Strafella’s Untitled, or Frank Badur’s own composition, which in this online catalogue accompanies his Untitled. And then ponder the difference in how these works would sound compared to each other: John Fraser’s Fading Light I and Fading Light II versus Gloria Ortiz-Hernández’s Over and Over #5 versus any one of the lush pages in Sara Sosnowy’s Blue.
I could go on and on. And on. But I would prefer to discuss whether this audible connection exists in all types of artwork or if the construct of “text in art” particularly lends itself towards this interpretation? As an artist, do you ever notice or pay special attention to the sounds emitted when you make art? As a viewer, do you ever translate the visual into the auditory? And do you ever wonder what an artist was hearing when she made the work that you stand in front of?
N. Elizabeth Schlatter is the Deputy Director and Curator of Exhibitions at the University of Richmond Museums, Virginia, where she has organized exhibitions of modern and contemporary art since 2000. Previously she worked at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Washington, DC, and the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston. Elizabeth also organizes exhibitions independently and writes about art for various publications and websites. She has a BA in Art History from Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas, and an MA in Art History from George Washington University, Washington, DC. Elizabeth lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.