The Language of Art 

Words and visual images combine to memorable effect at Spaces.

"Pop/Pistol," by Whitfield Lovell, oil on wood.
  • "Pop/Pistol," by Whitfield Lovell, oil on wood.
Exhibits that combine drawing and language are always in danger of remaining stuck at the terminology phase: What constitutes a drawing? What is "language"? Luckily, the current exhibit at Spaces, called Drawing on Language, skips the abstruse theory. It's about art and not about classification schemes. Among the 18 artists represented, George Fitzpatrick, Mira Schor, and Whitfield Lovell stand out with richly layered work that lingers in the memory.

This skillfully curated show is the brainchild of Carter Foster, associate curator of drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Stephan Jost, curator of academic programs and exhibitions at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. These scholars frame the issues in a way that adds to the viewing experience. They tell us that they are interested in how language can become beautiful when it's isolated from its ordinary dictionary meaning and analyzed through the act of drawing. This, indeed, resonates with the course of modern artistic expression. In the early 20th century, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein alerted their respective audiences to the underlying nonrepresentational nature of their work. Picasso could conceive a face as a series of cubes, triangles, and cylinders. Stein, meanwhile, was less interested in what the Oxford English Dictionary said about the definition of words than with their sounds, the rhythmic shapes made by arranging them on the page.

An example of this approach can be found in the work of New York City artist Schor. In "Why Does the Past . . .?," an ink drawing on clay-coated paper, the artist is interested in words as sensual objects having a life of their own. Drawing the question "Why does the past always have to be gray and out of focus?" with splotchy letters that seem to emerge naturally from the atmospheric background, Schor economically dramatizes the frustrating aspect of memory retrieval: Remembering accurately is a trial because we can recover, at best, only a trace of the original experience.

Cleveland native Fitzpatrick takes a different approach. In his "I weep for the yellow dust of the dead" series, created between 1996 and 2001, he uses yellow pencil to transcribe the poems of Tu Fu, a Tang dynasty Chinese poet who died in 770 A.D. Each drawing consists of three separate sheets bearing between 11 and 17 lines of poetry in a calligraphic lettering of the artist's own devising. Fitzpatrick's letters are barely visible. Thus, the artist denies the viewer the ability to fully appreciate his meticulous craftsmanship. This is his intent. In this series, he commemorates his father, who died at the age of 47 when Fitzpatrick was only 11, and this evocative work speaks eloquently about incompleteness.

Lovell's bold oil on wood titled "Pop/Pistol" from 1990 is much more explicit in its use of language, though it, too, has a commemorative function. It's a double portrait of an elderly African American man and a pistol. Starting at the perimeters and working toward the centrally placed images is a hand-transcribed newspaper account about the senseless murder of the man depicted, Lovell's grandfather. The text impassively tells us about a man returning home with his Social Security check, the confrontation he has with some youths who demand his money, the ensuing struggle, and the murder. The images and text emerge from a deep orange background that suggests the glowing embers of a once-strong fire. This moving work has all the trappings of documentary realism. However, such touches as that glowing background and the clever placement, near the point of the pistol, of the words "died at 2:55 p.m." proclaim the artist's own viewpoint with telling power. A senseless chain of events led to the death of "Pop," but art can both perpetuate his memory and sum up his significance.

Artists have combined images and text for hundreds of years, and the fact that they keep on doing it suggests that there is a close connection between the goals of written language and that of visual language. The artists in the Spaces exhibit do not work this way because they are unable to write short stories or because they feel that visual images cannot be self-sufficient. Rather, they need both modes of communication to get their vision across. That's the best kind of art: the kind in which form is not imposed from without, but rather is integral to the nature of the ideas that are being expressed.

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