How Do You Make Music With No Melody— Applefaces at Studio DTFU
by Eli Walker, November 2012
“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see”
—Rene Magritte (speaking about his painting, The Son of Man 1965)
Studio DTFU puts our critical minds in to over-time once again with their new show Applefaces. The word Applefaces may not make sense, but that’s precisely the intention. It derives from the mispronunciation of Apophasis, a Latin word meaning to “mention by not mentioning.” Apophasis is also explained as the process of trying to describe something by describing what it is not. A conceptual game played out by scholars of solid linguistics. But whereas Apophasis is an abstract construct of poetry and debate, Applefaces forms a visual image in the mind and resonates as something like the painting Son of Man by Magritte. This division of Concept and Image was always in play with Magritte’s work since his groundbreaking, 1929 painting of a pipe that is not a pipe (Ceci n’est pas une pipe.) the title of which is often forgotten— The Treachery of Images.
All of the works in this show are by artists that use text as a device for image-making. Each piece is an attempt to discover how the making of an artwork can be used as communication. Justin Hunter Allen and Lucy Kirkman curate the entirety of Applefaces as a way to examine the dichotomy of how an artwork is ‘seen’ and how it is ‘read.’ Ultimately it begs the question, “Is art a language?” Does it operate in a way similar to hieroglyphics such as many untranslatable relics of ancient Meso-American carvings? Or is it more used as symbols that form a concrete image the way that ASCII-art does? Upon reflection, the answers are very complicated when we consider that we do not truly understand what language is. Also, the advent of Conceptual Artists in the 60s such as Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer, etc… —including the artist group Art & Language— that all indicated a high level of distrust for object-making by deinstitutionalizing the notion that art exists in the material realm. With all of these separate schools of thought where does it leave us today when artists still have the imperative to “create things?”
When writing about Luc Tuymans’ paintings, the critic Stephan Berg said:
“[Images] are an effect of the transformation of an industrialized society, one that is based on the circulation of commodities, into a communications society, one that builds capital by means of information and where data increasingly reaches us in real time. However, in the vortex of these data streams, which ‘in-form’ us and thus leave their impression on us, reality increasingly appears to be a phantom, a bodiless mass that is only made tangible by its semiotic ‘information’… From our present perspective, images can no longer be used to narrate the world, but they also can not be left to signify themselves.” (Twilight of the Images, 2003)
If we take the pieces in Applefaces as an indication of ‘our present perspective’ we see the use of text acting in a very different yet similarly cynical way as the earlier Conceptual Artists. There is a particular nihilism that most of the work in this show shares that leads the viewer to some semblance of a message but eventually leaves a feeling of emptiness. Contemporary art is self-reflexive and constantly puts the carrot on the stick for us as we search for meaning. This group of work has more in common with Magritte (the show’s poster-boy) as a strategy to deny the viewer from ever getting the whole experience. It is a study of how to mention something by not mentioning it.
Take Samantha McCurdy’s sculpture for example: titled Simple Machine, it is a found object and is barely manipulated in any fashion. Its function as a BINGO tumbler dares you to interact with it and its understated placement on a floor plinth dares you to call it a sculpture. The tumbler relies heavily on its own being as a ready-made; taken from a world that offers you a game that you can gamble on if you can just get the letters to line up and spell out some nonsense word after each turn. Similarly, Alex DiJulio writes a poem with rocks that are lined out on an outdated computer monitor. By carefully arranging the ‘letters’ it alludes to something to be read or even decoded, but it is impossible to read— rendering both the rocks and the monitor as archaic communication devices that can never be fully translated given that the freedom of poetry allows for the written prose to be just as non sequitur as any other form of art. Jeff Zilm creates another approach to encoding/decoding by spelling out the letters AGAG using images of guitar chords that are stretched over an immaculate linen surface. The affect is crafted straightforwardly as it is elegant, allowing the forms of the image to hold equal weight to its full content.
Kelly Kroener’s floor sculpture is characteristically ephemeral and sensual as she takes a passage from a horse dressage book she owned as a child and writes it in sand that is leveled at the top by a jumping post. She takes on the sexuality and authority of horseback riding and coyly spells it out in a medium not meant to be permanent. In a different vein, Devin Kenny was asked to send in a message that would be posted on the permanent marquee board that hangs on the wall of Studio DTFU. As a rapper and multi-media artist working in Los Angeles, Devin is keenly aware of how a written phrase is expressed to the listener. However, it’s important to note that after three alternative phrases the saying “I DON’T EVEN WANNA MENTION THE 711 CUPS”— a reference to a recent political election gimmick— was chosen because the artist liked the way that it looked. A decision that again calls in to question of whether our experiential approach to art (or politics) is inherently hinged on meaning or aesthetic.
The most affiliated with text-based, conceptual art in the show is Michael Corris, who was a prominent member of the Art & Language group mentioned earlier. Corris evokes art history by referencing The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. Plato debated that the narrative of Venus suggests that the comprehension of beauty can lead a person to understanding spiritual beauty. On the other hand, the renowned and wealthy Medici’s commissioned the painting from Botticelli, thus placing it back in to the commerce driven culture that artists still endure to this day. By repetitively stringing the texts “ART IS A WEAPON” and “FOR ART AND CAPITALISM”, Corris fashions an icon that resembles Venus coming out of her shell. It can also resemble an anchor, a grave, or a crucifix.
Another artist in the show that takes his cue from art history is Joe Allen. With his print Desire Demise, Allen takes an image of a 1724 Dutch still life painting and superimposes the text Desire and Demise in a very brutal font. The serifs of the font surprisingly intertwine with the delicate stems of the floral image, but the two words that flank the top and bottom of the print remind us of what this image was originally conceived as: a depiction of a moment in time that reminds us of our own mortality. For all of the vitality we find by admiring the beauty of the meticulous arrangement, any moment after the paint dries on the surface, the flowers will be wilted and gone. The fleeting significance of the natural world is suppressed by how it is immortalized by the process of making a painting. This type of insight into the ‘Old Masters’ is what Joe Allen recognizes and shares with us. Representational image making regains a contemporary appreciation with the inclusion of only two words.
So, does a broad awareness of art history and critical discourse better prepare you to perceive a meaning behind these artworks? Probably. Does it hinder you from having an emotional and intuitive perception of meaning you could have come to independently? Probably. The best work to encapsulate the theme of Applefaces is Joshua Von Ammon’s painting Post Post Post… Punk. As an image that totally resists being an image, Ammon’s use of text regurgitates the prefix ‘post’ until it is virtually meaningless. Just as the abundance of ‘post’ anything in an artists’ dialog has become overused and redundant. The painting is made very meditatively by stenciling each letter with India ink into a roll of paper. The medium he chooses is not forgiving to mistakes, which causes the viewer to alternate between contemplating the absurdist text and admiring the means of which it was produced. Ammon’s letters create a pattern that can be viewed spatially as well as read linearly. If there is any take-away from Applefaces it is that concept and aesthetic are present in all works of art, but that doesn’t necessarily hold them to mean anything, and our appreciation for art is enriched by how we communicate a meaning by not mentioning it.