William Powhida's solo show at Platform successfully shit-talked its way to being one of this year's memorable shows, in no small part because the works didn't beat around the bush: We read in blatant, boldfaced words who and what irks him. In Platform's excellent show, Word: Language in Contemporary Art, Powhida is back, along with six others, exploring the place and function of text in visual communication.
"REMINDER, you are nothing, but a lower middle class art teacher $36,000 in debt, pushing 30, EVERYTHING you make better be fucking brilliant," Powhida bellows in his single contribution, Pressure. The text of the piece engages in a sort of Mad-Libbing sensibility: We're not all art teachers in debt from a so-so MFA program, but everyone can relate to wanting, needing, to achieve more, to be more important. And just in case the underlying implications of the text get too heavy, Powhida delivers the note with cheeky glee: the piece is a graphite on paper representation of graphite on paper.
The artists at Platform are coming out of movements in modern art that recognize and exploit language as subjective, as difficult to render as any image. Christopher Wool's bleak, deconstructed text paintings, beginning in the late '60s, find language to be nearly indecipherable. Barbara Kruger exposes both word and image in mass media as false and empty, by reconstructing advertising with new slogans steeped in accusing humor. Contemporary art continues to grapple with language and image and where they collide.
In John Jenkins III's President George W. Bush, 10.05.02, Radio Address to the Nation, words are printed plainly across a blurry George Bush: "Delay, indecision, and inaction are not options for America, because they could lead to massive and sudden horror." That the rhetoric is both obvious and empty as doublespeak is unsurprising. Jenkins's pieces are a touch too literal; in some ways, the blurry portraits are merely companion illustrations to the blurriness of the quotes.
For Wayne White, who has had a successful career in advertising and as a production designer (his resumé includes work on Pee-Wee's Playhouse), the use of text is a method to subvert and parody. White collects lithographs, the kind of ugly seascapes and farm still lifes that are a dime a dozen at any junkshop, and paints bold, ridiculous slogans on them. "HONESTY INTEGRITY IN EVERY PICTURE," White declares in one work, the letters pointing toward a monstrosity of a duck with a Ren and Stimpy–ish head. It's hilarious and irreverent, and it works; text in visual art can lampoon expression and language, can question the how and why of what we accept as viable information.
Marc Dombrosky's words are not his own. He embroiders found paper, making abandoned words permanent. A modern day Arthur, pulling Excalibur from the stone, is accompanied by the sentiment, "Don't turn your back on destiny... it will find you." Scrawled in the kind of handwriting that only kids are capable of making look so fantastically exuberant, it's nothing if not totally badass.
Patte Loper and Will Yackulic contribute small, significant pieces engaged in rigorous wordplay and visual trickery. Loper, in a significant turn from her recent solo show at Platform, simply paints the word "SHPAYSH" across a small piece of paper. It's a bafflingly strange word (say it three times out loud, what fun!) that begs to be broken down like a Sunday word puzzle. Yackulic's pieces are also delivered with a wink. He constructs digital mountains and cities out of geometric blocks and pounds the "*" key on a typewriter to make a literal, starry sky. There is a wisp of a head engaged in the verbal, but the words are lost somewhere in translation. With a visual shrug, a nonchalant apology, Yackulic presses into one of the pieces, "It came out of the lines a lot."
The largest works in the show, in both size and immediacy, are by Nicola Vruwink. With intricate, obsessive precision, a mind-boggling amount of cassette tape has been crocheted into the words "there's no comfort in the truth." Another reads, "I wish I knew what I was looking for." A cassette tape sits broken and useless on the ground, the reco rded sounds having been torn out to form Vruwink's laments. In a third piece, the audiotape has been replaced by simple yarn, the soft, delicate variety used to crochet baby blankets. "We Are All Broken," the pink and yellow words read, the quiet sadness offset by tacky, fake-looking flowers hanging limply from the yarn. It's powerful, genuine work. In the context of a culture where talk can be cheap, meaningless verbiage, Vruwink's work suggests other possibilities.