The Visual Power of Words


The Visual Power of Words

Review by Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine. Photos courtesy of the museum.

suzannebocanegra2000Suzanne Bocanegra’s ‘Brushstrokes in a Victorian Flower Album: Long Headed Poppy’ (2000).

In collaboration with the Reykjavík Arts Festival, Hafnarborg presents the exhibition ART="TEXT=ART from the New York collection of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky. It includes more than 80 drawings, prints, and artists’ books made between 1955 and 2012, by over 40 contemporary artists.

I was overwhelmed by the variety of works and names, and I spent hours observing the artworks one by one. The task of figuring out some kind of apparent system seemed daunting, as the range of artistic interpretation goes from one extreme to another: from pure poetry of patterns and symbols to algorithmic impersonal constructions; from literal usage of single words and their individual meaning to massive flow of endless information from historic documents to the point of meaningless abstraction.

When I tried to divide the works into categories, I listed at least 19 potential groups: geometric art, hieroglyphs art, typewritten art, artist’s book, handmade paper art, cutout paper art, pyrography art, postcard art, stamp art, diary art, newspaper art, collage art, etc. But many of those groups merge into one another, where no clear-cut distinction is possible.

I am naturally drawn to poetic works, like Jill O’Bryan’s artist’s book ‘Breaths #1’ (2009)– where the pages of the book are marked by pin-holes of her breaths, as reference to the air floating through movement; and Suzanne Bocanegra’s ‘Brushstrokes in a Victorian Flower Album: Long Headed Poppy’ (2000), which suggests the yellowing of pages and the brushstrokes of illustrators. Although the composition of the latter is organized in rectangles, it mimics the expressive pages of an artist’s sketchbook.

jillo-brianbreaths1-2009Jill O’Bryan’s artist’s book ‘Breaths #1’ (2009).

Science-inspired art in the form of graphs and diagrams is not my cup of tea, although there is a certain beauty in the clear-headed down-to-earth approach of data-visualization, as in the work of Mark Lombardi’s ‘Casino Resort Development in the Bahamas c.1955-89 (fourth version)’ (1995), which displays the power network in a corrupted organization.

Knowing the concept behind the works does influence the understanding and enjoyment of them, as in the case of choreographer Trisha Brown’s ‘Drawing for Pyramid’ (1975) which is a graph-like visualization of the movements in a performance, as an aid for her dancers.

Although I appreciate how practical and environmentally friendly e-cards and e-books are, I love the tangible quality of books, the smell of old paper and the quirkiness of handwritten letters.

The very first artwork which attracted my attention from this exhibition was William Anastasi’s ‘Word Drawing Over Short Hand Practice Page’ (1962), where the artist combines handwritten content authored by someone else with calligraphy-like symbols in-between the words, breaking the flow and the context into a totally new purely visual meaning of the text.

Perhaps text is closest to an art form when it is totally divorced from language and meaning, but on this particular day I was attracted to literally text-based artworks, where one single word has the power of thousand words.

melbochnerirascible2006Mel Brochner’s ‘Irascible’ (2006).

For example, Mel Brochner’s ‘Irascible’ (2006) was the second artwork which hypnotized me in this exhibition. The angry words are contrasted against the black background, printed on velvet– whether the soft fabric is intended to diminish or accentuate some of the word’s harshness is an open question. Reading it like a prayer over and over again, my blood started boiling into self-righteous outrage, although I didn’t quite know half of the words’ meanings.

The third artwork, which is stuck in my memory, is Bronlyn Jones’s ‘Erasure List’ (2009). It reads like a poem, and although it is literally text-based art, it is a reminder of when words fail to communicate what the eyes cannot see:

“What is left out What is unnecessary What is resisted What is inessential What is rejected What is too easily said What is glib What is overstated What is left unsaid”

The exhibition runs until June 23, 2013. Admission is free. Hafnarborg, the Hafnarfjördur Center of Culture and Fine Art, is located on Strandgata 34, 220 Hafnarfjörður.

Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine – kremenan (at)

Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine is a passionate collector of art books, dedicating every spare moment to learn more about art while dreaming about having an exhibition of her own. She studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in Akureyri from 1999 to 2002. In college she realized that she didn’t want to be a designer or commercial artist but rather an illustrator and writer. At the moment she’s experimenting with her first graphic novel.

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