The = in Art=Text=Art

by Karen Schiff

This essay derives from a gallery talk given by Karen Schiff on September 2, 2011, at the Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art, University of Richmond Museums, Virginia, as part of the educational programming surrounding Art=Text=Art: Works by Contemporary Artists.

This exhibition’s title posits an equivalence between art and text: art equals text equals art. Because I am an artist and a former English professor, my mind works in a hybrid of visual and verbal modes, so I am intrigued by the idea of giving these categories equal value. The artworks gathered here use text in ways that reveal it to be essential — art emerges through or around or because of text. Yet the show’s title dares us to ask fundamental questions:

Does art equal text?
Does text equal art?

To say that art equals text — in other words, that a work of art is a “text” to be read — is to indulge a strand of poststructuralist literary and cultural theory that was most popular a decade or so ago, after philosopher Jacques Derrida became famous for saying that there is “nothing outside the text.”1 That is, all that exists can be subject to endless interpretation, including the interpretations themselves. In this way of thinking, a work of art is a text, to be mined for however it can enrich our understanding about anything. We can look for symbolism or aesthetic structure in a work of art, using techniques similar to those used in literary analysis. In other words, we can seek meaning. Though this analytical approach to artwork might seem unremittingly rational, analysis can also lead to the acknowledgement of mystery — as in a Freudian analysis of the unconscious, through a dream or “coincidental” event — and interpretation can eventually lead to a sense that some things can never be fully unraveled. A work of art can retain its je ne sais quoi. But since a “textual analysis” of art is universally applicable—even to artworks without any writing in them—this way of equating art and text will not contribute to theories specific to this exhibition’s title.

To say that text equals art is quite another thing. I don’t want to discuss whether a piece of writing can be crafted well enough to qualify as literature, or a verbal art form. Rather, I want to probe the assertion that writing is itself a visual art, or that textual information — or data — can have the visual presence of a work of art. As we’ve established, in the context of this exhibition, writing – text or visual emblems that suggest text — is essential to the artworks…but this immediately presents a conundrum. Do we look at these works or read them?

The peskiest part of this conundrum is the back-and-forth motion of the mind. Though you look and read with the same eyes, the mental operations of looking and reading feel radically different. Neurologists have even shown that they activate separate regions of the brain. This poses problems for artists using text. How can a work of visual art include text without being overwhelmed — or narrowed — by the words’ literal meaning? Can an artist invoke the feeling of reading without having the work get stuck in “reading mode”? Can the visual properties of the work somehow derive from textual information or layout? Does the work have to relate the visual to the verbal? Altogether, how does an artwork juggle the claim that text equals art?

The pieces in this exhibition offer many answers to these questions.2 Some artworks include writing that is illegible or difficult to read, so that this textual element functions primarily visually.3 Other artworks use legible words, but the drawing’s visual power and the words’ verbal meaning are both so intense that concentrating on looking very quickly leads to reading, and vice versa, until the mind toggles between looking and reading at a dizzying rate.4 And some artworks perform a kind of visual research, presenting information in aesthetic formats that go beyond mere diagramming. Some of these reveal the subject of their research5; others conceal it by abstracting it.6 Still other works foreground symbols, codes, or gestural marks that evoke writing but belong to no language: they must be “read” visually.7 These works, which carry a whiff of textuality, are reminders that writing is, after all, a visible system. Yet it can also be an invisible system — in my own work, text is often either illegible or hidden, hinted at within a format or a frame instead of exposed directly.

I have adopted this latter strategy in my work because I think text can never be just art. Even when characters are written with beautiful forms, or using engaging techniques, writing always carries the residue of what it signifies — it refers to layers of meaning beyond the confines of the work of art.8 Numbers and letters are never just squiggles on a page.9 Of course, every work of art connects to threads of discourse that exist outside of the work itself…but we usually become aware of this interrelatedness of cultural phenomena only by actively thinking about it. When a piece contains text, by contrast, we get a head start on making those connections. The artist chooses words that tell us what to think about first.

So far, these reflections presume that we interpret the “=” in Art=Text=Art as a linguistic sign: the written symbol means “equals.” What if we don’t read this sign, but we instead look at it as a graphic pattern? The “=” sign consists of two parallel lines. So let’s think about art and text as running on parallel tracks. And if these lines are tracks, where is this train going?

For these lines to remain in parallel, art and text would need to be of equal value; otherwise, the lines might eventually touch or cross as they chart the wavering relations of these two categories. And if the paths of art and text never intersect, then perhaps the brain researchers are right: the visual and verbal modes are destined never to be at work simultaneously. Certainly this separation carries some weight in the art world: many people talk about how they don’t want to read while looking at art, as if text interfered with aesthetic pleasure. I encountered this sort of resistance after my portfolio review for graduate school, when a printing professor cried, “But you can’t put words in art!” Perhaps this matter boils down to a question of taste. Still, if we do move in this direction — keeping text out of art or art devoid of text — I would want neither text nor art to lose power relative to the other. I am loyal to them both; I like them both too much.

Next let’s try thinking of these lines not as static geometries, but as rays or arrows — still one is art, the other text. I’d like to imagine that both words and images spring from the same source and head toward the same goal. That is, I posit an inchoate primordial ooze from which people get the impulse to write or to make art. Then, both writers and artists can share the goal of having certain impacts on people. Though the pathways stay separate, moving through visual or verbal modes, the beginning points and endpoints are basically the same.

The other way I’d like to see the “=” sign in Art=Text=Art is to look at the two lines together, to think about them as directional lines going from art to text and back to art again. I imagine them as the edges of a shape resembling the snake that swallowed an elephant in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince: bigger in the middle. The lines start with art, bow out to encompass the idea of text, and then reunite as they move back toward the idea of art. Conceptually, this works like the lyrics to Donovan’s song “There Is a Mountain” (1967): “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” In the Zen tradition from which these lyrics come, you think at first that you know what a mountain is. Then you start looking into what makes a mountain — really exploring the details of all the trees and rocks and slopes — and you realize that there’s no discrete object that could be called a “mountain”…until at last we have to say something everyday, like, “I’m going to climb that mountain today.” Suddenly the mountain exists again. In the context of Art=Text=Art, we start with the premise that we’re going to make visual art, and then our framework for what that art could encompass expands to include text — an unexpected ingredient. When we remember that even though we’re including text, we’re still making art, we’ve come full circle — the snake of art has swallowed the elephant of text. And the return to the idea of art — like the return to the mountain in the song — is richer for having passed through a phase of text. Some of the works in the exhibition look like abstract formalist studies, but then their bibliographic source materials become apparent, after which their formal properties regain the foreground.10

In this last way of thinking about Art=Text=Art, art is bigger than text. It can expand its scope to include anything — even something as reputedly inimical to art as text. This sounds most accurate to me. Art seems like a more flexible system than text, though some writers (such as Jonathan Safran Foer, most recently) are determined to push at the visual and physical limits of text.11 As an English professor, I researched novels whose visual manifestations amplified their verbal meanings, but these examples were few.12 Books are bound up! Letters are in cases! Numbers are in sets! Language generally obeys grammatical rules, and mathematics is subject to logic. Art, on the other hand, knows no boundaries. Conventions are meant to be challenged, not followed. Though fiction and even mathematics can, in their most creative manifestations, invent new frameworks for reality, they are governed by systems that visual art can sidestep. As you explore the exhibition, in person or through this website, I hope you will discover artists suggesting ever further ways to imagine text and art in combination.

Though Art=Text=Art posits equivalence between art and text, this essay arrives at privileging art. This feels appropriate because we are, after all, considering these hybrid works in the context of an art museum, where art is our primary framework. Yet this exhibition demonstrates that art and text are inextricably, symbiotically linked. Text is the occasion for this gathering of works, the grain of sand that gives the oyster its pearl. And so it sits in the middle of the title, creating questions and consternations that ideally smooth over to form germs, or gems, of ideas.

Thanks to Wynn Kramarsky, for imagining me in this role, to his curator Rachel Nackman for her gracious and skillful help in making everything happen, and to museum curator N. Elizabeth Schlatter for her good cheer and careful attention as we brainstormed ideas and finalized details.

1. Originally “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” in Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (orig. Les Editions de Minuit, 1967; trans. Johns Hopkins, 1976), page 158 in the 1998 English corrected edition.
2. The gallery talk was structured around examples of how artists combine art and text. Though those examples are recorded here in footnotes, readers will also ideally explore the website to find additional examples for each category, and perhaps also to invent new categories altogether.
3. Artists whose work fell into the category of illegible writing included Cy Twombly, John Waters, and Annabel Daou.
4. This category was discussed using William Anastasi’s Untitled (READING A LINE ON A WALL) and Molly Springfield’s Chapter IX.
5. See Mark Lombardi’s chart that reveals the financing for casino resorts in the Bahamas.
6. See Jill Baroff’s concentric circles that document precise measurements of the tides.
7. This idea was explored in light of Christine Hiebert’s L.99.1.
8. We talked about this concept in front of Ed Ruscha’s Gray Sex.
9. Christine Hiebert’s drawings of cattle brand markings, however, served as emblems of the generally arbitrary quality of most systems of visible language.
10. In the gallery talk, works by John Fraser and Jón Laxdal were examples of this phenomenon.
11. See Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) for visual games with writing, images, and page layout, and Tree of Codes (Visual Editions, 2010) for die-cut incisions into the printed page.
12. The most compelling example appeared just as the novel was gaining ascendancy as a genre: Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760-67). This novel is better known in our time simply as Tristram Shandy. No contemporary edition matches the genius of the original. Virginia Woolf also collaborated with her sister, artist Vanessa Bell, to create a visual-verbal gift edition of Woolf’s Kew Gardens (Hogarth Press, 1927). A facsimile of this book is available as a reprint (Chatto & Windus, 1999).

Karen Schiff

Karen Schiff (b. 1967, New Haven, CT) earned her MFA in Studio Art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Tufts University, Boston (2006), where she won a Drawing Award from the SMFA faculty (2005). Schiff completed earlier degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia (PhD in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, 1998) and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island (AB/AM in Comparative Literature/English, 1989). Schiff has been resident at the Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, New Mexico (2007); the Edward F. Albee Foundation, Montauk, New York (2007); Anderson Ranch, Snowmass Village, Colorado (2011); Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, New York (2012, 2014); and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, Taos (2012, 2014), among other institutions. Schiff contributed an artists’s project, Counter to Type, to the Spring 2014 issue of Art Journal. The project included drawings, an essay, and a video about her process. She lectures and publishes about her work in the word/image field, and she also creates projects about artist Agnes Martin. A recent solo exhibition was held at the Flanagan Campus Art Gallery, Community College of Rhode Island, London (2011). Recent group exhibitions include such venues as Hverfisgallerí, Reykjavik (2014), Hafnarborg Museum, Hafnarfjör∂ur, Iceland (2013); Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock (2012); Danese, New York (2010, 2011, 2012); the Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York (2011); Galería Astarté, Madrid (2010). In 2013 Schiff curated the group exhibition Winter Reading: Lines of Poetry at Diane Birdsall Gallery, Old Lyme, Connecticut. She lives in New York City and has a studio in Brooklyn. More information about her work can be found at