'Text': Reading Between the Lines

"Self Portrait (I Am Not My Thoughts)," by Michael Janis, explores the idea of transparency/opacity. (By Michael Janis)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

In the statement accompanying Denise Wolff's black-and-white photographs of printed pages, on view at the Greater Reston Arts Center as part of the thematic group exhibition "Text," the artist writes that it is impossible to "read" and "see" at the same time. Seeing words -- that is, appreciating them as visual artifacts instead of as content-laden symbols -- interferes with the act of comprehension, she writes.

This is true, and it is at the heart of what makes "Text" a fascinating little show. To varying degrees, the tension between legibility and illegibility (a connection at times slack and elastic, at others stretched to the breaking point) is what unites these seven artists, brought together by curator F. Lennox Campello in a slightly modified version of a show he originally organized last year for the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran at the Warehouse Gallery.

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that Wolff is working on her doctorate, not in art but in English. Yet her partly blurred pictures of text passages, taken from such sources as feminist Julia Kristeva's chapters on sight and writing, play with the idea of text more as an artist might than as a writer would. When phrases such as "woman's buttocks" or "naked belly" emerge into sharp focus from a soup of hazy gray letters, they call up not just abstract ideas but concrete images. Images straight out of art history, as a matter of fact. After you've read the words, Wolff invites you to not just see them as objects, but to imagine -- in your mind's eye -- what they represent.

"Text" is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a calligraphy show, with the possible exception of the work of Victor Ekpuk, a Nigerian-born artist whose paintings incorporate non-English symbols taken from ancient tribal languages. Because they cannot be easily read, most viewers will automatically switch to "seeing" mode, exclusively processing their form, rather than their indigestible content.

For the most part, every other artist tantalizes the viewer in some way, simultaneously revealing (and concealing) bits and pieces of meaning, even as the text is used as a compositional element.

Mark Cameron Boyd, for example, creates a kind of interference, slicing horizontally through lines of handwritten text and then rearranging them in out-of-sync stripes, so that the tops of words are paired with the bottoms of others. "Thoughts contain ideas (do not write them down)" he titles one of his pieces, in an effective evocation of the paranoiac, obsessively -- if not entirely effectively -- hiding what he's thinking. But it's precisely because of Boyd's game of hide-and-seek that we strain even harder to decipher the words. Of course, we can't fully, which is exactly his point.

Molly Springfield, whose "Untitled (Memory Landscape)" is a slide show of digital photographs of folded paper notes, writes that she's interested in how viewers "encounter illegibility." Although we can make out only tiny fragments of handwriting in her work, Springfield is more interested in what she calls the "authority of text on paper" than its meaning. "I am fascinated," she writes, "by the ways in which writing, stripped of its semantic content, retains a certain kind of quiet, wordless poetry." Indeed it does.

Glass sculptors Tim Tate and Michael Janis both toy with the idea of transparency/opacity or, if you will, legibility/illegibility. Each etches handwritten text directly onto glass. In Tate's case, his "Monkey Reliquary" features multiple versions of the same story from the artist's childhood spiraling around the outside of three jar-like forms. In the case of Janis's "Self Portrait (I Am Not My Thoughts)," head-shaped silhouettes formed from scribbled text are layered onto glass panes sandwiched one between the other. Neither piece, however, can be easily "read" in the conventional sense. Janis's overlapping words obscure themselves, while the way in which Tate's narrative spirals around and around the outside of his vessels creates, in effect, its own static.

Painter Michal Hunter's otherwise conventional portrait of her ex-husband, Giorgio Furioso, is set against a backdrop of what appears to be an old letter or poem. Snippets of text -- "kiss," "soft" and "I need this" -- suggest one interpretation, but the subject's unsmiling face, and the idiosyncratic handwriting, confound attempts to nail down the exact meaning.

There is an element, then, of performance art to this show, whose writings possess a raison d'etre that has less to do with the idea of being read than with having been written. Words, like the thoughts of Boyd's title, do contain ideas. By writing them down, or photographing them -- by giving them flesh -- even when no one else can read, or, in fact, see them, the artists in "Text" suggest that words have not just, as Springfield put it, an authority, but a presence.

It is a presence that can be felt, even when it cannot be understood or explained.

TEXT Through May 5 at the Greater Reston Arts Center, 12001 Market St., Suite 103, Reston. 703-471-9242.http://www.restonarts.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 to 5. Free.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

Saturday at 7 Dialogue with the artists.

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