Subtext Art: Merci Mercy
Text: Natasha Stagg
Text Art, the movement, feels very much behind us, and yet, it can't possibly be. Text in art is as widespread as ever, and text-focused art more so than when it was at its popularity-peak. The "new aesthetic," "internet art," or whatever the kids are calling it these days relies on text as much as it relies on code, and it focuses on communication—on a call and response, or on a shout into a void.
When I first heard about Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld's Merci Mercy (showing on the third floor of 980 Madison in New York), I imagined a retrospective. Tracey Emin, Jack Pierson, Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer and other heavy hitters of the Text Art movement were listed, alongside artists not so known for their textual orientations: Louise Bourgeois, Nan Goldin, Sophie Calle, Tom Sachs, and Pier Paolo Calzolari, to name a few. But younger artists appeared on the list, too: Rashid Johnson, Peter Davies, Dash Snow, and Aaron Young. What could they all possibly have in common? A great deal, actually.
What's surprising about the exhibition is its cohesion. In the entrance a quote is ironed onto a wall, falsely credited to Walter Benjamin—a piece by Scott King. A bright Mel Bochner hangs on a far wall, a crowded Peter Davies to my left, and an equally crowded Tom Sachs diptych to my right. One of Christopher Knowles’s type-written pictograms is hung near a Nikolas Gambaroff pop art collage, and Jack Pierson's Abstract sits in the middle of the room. Walking through feels like reading a very clever comic strip. Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld is amused, too. Each piece has a great story: the piece by autistic Knowles is his mind’s version of an image, which must be represented in neat rows of symbols; the Michael Krebber, a large white painting divided into three “pages” is a replicated blog entry; the Ben Schumacher, located at floor level, is a 3-D print of a Japanese restaurant lunch. “This room is very much about repetition,” says Restoin-Roitfeld, which is clear by the way each piece feels circular in its content. Peter Davies recorded phrases he found from the media used to describe those up-and-coming artists we’ve forgotten about in Whatever Happened To. The Sachs describes a day in the life, sparing no small detail. These works are casually loaded, like the endless chats we experience daily online. Like looping emails, the content is always flowing, but getting to the meat may take some focus.
This is why the show is “not a retrospective at all,” says Restoin-Roitfeld, close friend to V and co-curator with Christine Messineo. It is about text being used in the world today, not the Text Art movement, which is intentionally represented as a sort of blank spot in the collection. “I wanted artists known for their text art to show art with not so much text, and artists not known for using text in their art to show some that included text.” The Lucien Smith, for example, in the adjoining room, may be the only one of its kind, made up of whitewashed newspapers in a rare form of literary representation. The Goldin displays text in that it is a photograph of a gravestone; the Sophie Calle, which “may be the most text-oriented of them all,” is made up of several tarot-readers’ offerings after Calle’s ex-boyfriend’s breakup letter was handed over. Two of Jenny Holzer’s three contributions, “probably the strongest pieces in the collection,” are as serene as most of her work is hyper. Two U.S. Government documents, mostly blacked out due to their top-secret information, have been blown up and painted white. An Aaron Young piece is covered in graffiti; Rashid Johnson’s is spray-painted with the word, “Run;” one of Dash Snow’s is a ransom note-like collage, the other a letter. One of Ed Ruscha’s trademark text pieces is found here in 2010’s Collision Frame Repair, juxtaposed beside a 2003 painting of a blank-paged book, open over the words “DAMN MAD.”
That’s the other surprising part of this collection: most of the works are fairly new. Even Tracey Emin’s tried-and-true neon text, which spells out “And I Said I Love You!” is from 2011, and a similar piece by Dominique-Gonzalez-Foerster, which spells out “Exotourisme,” was made only last year. It seems Text Art is alive and well, only it isn’t called that anymore. Text is so much more a fabric of our being than ever, it is simply a given that all artists would eventually incorporate it, or reject it, which means the rejecting of text in art is now a necessary action. The exhibition's titular piece, "Merci Mercy", by Louise Bourgeois, feels stark near all of the work that precedes it in the space. Although Bourgeois was not known for her text, she was inarguably a communicator, and the simple message here is at once warmly anticipated, and, near a similarly blunt Holzer (a white footstool that reads "The Future is Stupid"), cold. Words, used sparingly, can make as morbid a statement as an elegy, when cushioned with the everyday runoff we're now so accustomed to: The show, although lighthearted for the most part—having fun with words—is as much about absence as it is about text's presence.
The collection can be viewed online here, and will be on view in New York until Febrary 17th.