PRINT November 1989


“Words are the furniture of the mind.”

Looking at Nancy Dwyer’s work is a bit like being Alice in Wonderland, precipitously shifting scale while sipping and munching from EAT ME/DRINK ME containers. There’s a curiously compounded sense of danger and fun in being simultaneously unsettled by their huge scale yet comforted by their familiarity.

These refreshingly eccentric paintings and sculptures provide us with a very different kind of involvement with art, one predicated on pleasure and accessibility, on an easy negotiation between the domains of public and private, mind and body, “high” art and popular culture. The bulk of Dwyer’s sculptural work consists of single words enlarged to furniture size, instead of ensconced and nicely in control on the printed page. Stay, urges a white leather bench in the shape of the letters of the word. (But what will happen if I obey?) There are also canvases painted in the clear, bright, come-hither hues of advertising, full of directives: Over Here—No, Over Here, announces one (except that one of the “directions” is reversed, making it hard to read); SELFSERV, proclaims another. (But what is it I’m to serve myself? Or does it imply, derogatorily, that I’m self-serving?). Another painting, Coming Up Next, 1986, asks me to anticipate without an object to attach the anticipation to, with no hope of fulfillment. A 1985 outdoor billboard installation reading Obsession Overruled passes incontrovertible judgment on my current preoccupations, while Dwyer’s 1988 sculpture The Desk of Envy makes me think about power and how much being positioned on one side of these mahogany letters rather than the other can mean, not to mention what might be squirreled away in one of its drawers.

But Alice and I, each in our own fictional and real worlds, are enchanted as well as discomfited by this wacky environment in which every move we make can trigger some unpredictable change in our relationship to the world as we think we know it. This experience is what Dwyer seeks in making the work. She is drawn to elements of chance and luck, and enjoys the fact that an idea has any number of ways, media, and forms that it can take in her pieces.

“For some people becoming an artist is being rebellious; for me it was being upwardly mobile.”

Dwyer courts the obvious, tries to make her ideas accessible; she’s as much drawn to advertising as she is to art history, and especially to television, which she points out is “just about as old as I am, so that it’s something I can have a handle on.” As a result, she isn’t interested in making art about art (a tendency that, as critic John Walker points out, only emerged once there were museums and galleries that artists could produce work especially for. ’) “The biggest art issue,” Dwyer maintains, “is learning about being in the world.”

Dwyer’s use of words as images, which took over her work exclusively by the summer of 1985, has prompted many observers to draw analogies between her and other contemporary artists who use words in their work. But this is somewhat beside the point. Words have been part of a visual vocabulary from earliest times, and though the focus on words as images is relatively new, it seems limiting and reductive to deal with this phenomenon as a homogeneous idiom. For Dwyer in particular, the use of language derives from her interests in its colloquial quality, and in ways of reinventing it in order to produce an expressive and personal kind of “reporting.” Dwyer sees language as a living thing, intrinsic to specific times and places. And when she states, “We’re to the point where words are a new version of pictures,”2 she’s referring to the way in which words are commonly altered pictorially, through computer graphics, to create dramatic, three-dimensional titles for films and television. Dwyer then characterizes her own labor-intensive, non mechanical working method (she draws the letters by hand, photographs and projects them, and takes Polaroids of these projections from various angles in order to render them three-dimensional) as ”making originals of something that there never was an original for.“ These images are highly charged and dramatic, yet are so deeply imbedded in everyday life that they are scarcely noticeable. Television has inured us to a varied diet of constant drama—the news, films, commercials, ”true-life“ and fictional narratives, and the drama of presentation itself. Dwyer uses the drama of the sales pitch in her work to try to ”make poetry out of selling by forgetting that there’s something to sell."

I adore writing, but just one or two words at a time.”

My first response to a recent drawing for a potential new piece, Trist, on Dwyer’s blackboard was to correct the spelling. My assumption was simply that it was accidentally misspelled, but the joke was on me. Dwyer once again put the ball in the viewer’s court where I assumed that I knew more than the artist did. My concern with its being “right” kept me from engaging with the word associatively on the first reading, keeping it outside the realm of what we think of as an “esthetic experience.” Her deliberate mistake also made me think about all the unintentionally misspelled words we see every day that are a commonplace, and thus brought me back to “mass” culture, that is to say, to real life.

By using “mistakes,” Dwyer’s work plays with the location of meaning, first lodging it with the viewer, then toggling back to the piece itself. This dislocation, this interest in the periphery of things, characterizes Dwyer’s work in general; she uses a specific word to kick off something stronger, which exists next to and outside the piece itself. This quality is, of course, basic to language in general; not only don’t words have singular meanings, but what we say is often quite different from what we mean, and what we mean is often out of our conscious control. (Were this not so, the field of psychoanalysis, where meanings are captured “to the side” of what’s actually said, wouldn’t exist.) And Dwyer’s use of only one or two words at a time, which is something people don’t usually see, except in titles, implies additional meaning or content beyond the word or phrase.

Some works, such as You Axiom, 1989, dislocate meaning by adopting a teasing yet directive tone. Here, a round glass table top, whose base is a steel X (as in “X marks the spot”), tells me “Wish you were here,” while another identical table next to it says “You are here,” making me wonder where, in fact, I actually am. The piece also has a psychological dimension, an element of dissatisfaction in which a compliment becomes a complaint. And as a viewer, it makes sure that you never know exactly where you stand. A painting like Something Else, Somewhere Else, 1988, is particularly effective in this regard, depicting two flying fish (which bear a striking resemblance to airplanes) against an obliquely spiraling ocher-and-orange ground, each fish labeled with a clause of the phrase. On the one hand, the painting is as direct and literal as it could possibly be. On the other hand, because of its conflicting messages, we’re back to an Alice-in-Wonderland situation where we’re not sure exactly where we are. The result is to decenter the viewer, making the title of the work come true, so to speak. Similarly, if we followed the instructions of Over Here — No, Over Here, 1987, a commission for the Hasbro Toy Company that consists of the two phrases painted like Looney Tunes logos and hung on opposite walls in one of the company’s huge lobbies, we’d actually be walking around in circles. In both instances, Dwyer’s work serves only as a sign to indicate what’s happening elsewhere in the viewer’s visual, physical, psychic sphere.

“Being around women is reality; men are vacations.”

Dwyer’s attitude toward feminism has none of the ambivalence that “first-generation” women (those who were adults when the women’s movement emerged here in the 1960s) are prone to feel and express. Having been raised in an all-female household (her father died when she was four), she says, “Female identity is part of my life. My idea of feminism is intrinsic to my attitude and how I work. It’s not even an issue.”

Perhaps this is why the tone of much of Dwyer’s one-word language is conspiratorial, confessional, private; it’s the kind of language women engage in, in what Dwyer calls, in her half-joking vernacular, “girl talk.” These phrases become pithy communiqués about relationships—to the self, to the other, to family and friends, to a bigger community, a higher power. They’re also about love, sex, betrayals, connections. Titles like Wild, 1987, Woo, Rough Enough/Tough Enough, Out of My Mind (all 1988), and Lazy Girl, 1989, suggest female activities and exchanges of a carefree, informal, and even stereotypical kind. But such a seemingly uninhibited embrace of stereotypes dovetails neatly with the questions Dwyer’s work raises about representation itself. For how we are represented to ourselves and to others constitutes our “reality”; it determines the ways in which we formulate ourselves as subjects. And these formulations of identity are created as much through language as through pictorial images, language and subjectivity being "processes that produce each other, ever in flux.”3

Questions of identity and subjectivity are addressed by Dwyer in pieces like Inside, 1986, a box with hinged sides that read “us,” “you,” “me,” and “them.” Inside, a black-and-white spiral says “Inside,” so that it reads like a crossword puzzle, forming three-word sentences—“us inside you inside me. . .”—making absolutely sure that we understand there’s no real way to get past the literal inside, to understand any of the subjects or objects.

A painting entitled Friends, 1988, is the visual equivalent of relationships as processes; the words “Enemies Fucking Friends Fucking Enemies” are repeated endlessly, so that the sentence can begin anywhere, with any emphasis, to create different, unstable meanings. These words form a visual field, somewhat like that used in news broadcasts as a backdrop, so that Dwyer’s use of crude popular slang in a restrained public mode creates contradictions, and lends immediacy and importance to the mixed messages. At the same time, the meanings of the sentence have soap-opera overtones, those shifting elements of romance, longing, fantasy, outrage, fear, and betrayal that are a commonplace of contemporary life and sexual mores, here presented in larger-than-life proportions.

RAW/WOO/WOE/RUE: “The shortest history of a romance.”

Many of Dwyer’s pieces have strong sexual overtones, hints or suggestions of sly double meanings that are sometimes so subtle as to appear to be entirely of the viewer’s fabrication, other times so blunt and unequivocally intentional as to be shocking. Of course, all these “texts” are subject to immediate and profound misreading, as in Zero Foreplay, 1987, which some people, says Dwyer, have taken as a “female complaint.” The idea in fact came from a friend who referred to New York City as “the town without foreplay.” Zero means “ground zero,” takeoff, fire, a warning signal that says “we’re there, this is IT!” But understanding the work’s genesis doesn’t go very far toward removing the suggestive overtones of the piece, nor would Dwyer want it to. For Dwyer’s suggestiveness is a kind of flirtation, a playfulness deployed to coax out into the open the problematic distinctions between the public and the private domain. Yet the element of pleasure engendered sets it apart from a great deal of work by contemporaries whose self-conscious high-mindedness or justifiable anger can often make it harder for a nonspecialized audience to identify with.

Another pleasure addressed in her work is that of simply wasting time, a kind of naughtiness that prefers the E-Z intricacies of Love Life experienced by a Lazy Girl to the American work ethic. Dwyer has recently completed a new painting that just says “wasting time” over and over and over again. Dwyer turns the phrase around so then it can be read as a positive or negative judgment, depending on the viewer’s own attitudes. In fact, the painting is so labor-intensive, with its words repeated obsessively, Dwyer might be taking seriously the attitude that not only is wasting time something most of us do, but that it might offer a subversive response to our culture’s emphasis on overproductivity.

The surprise inherent in such multiple readings is essential to the conditions of play, and as British art historian Griselda Pollock points out, playfulness—and pleasure in general—have recently become critical issues for feminists, “who have been occupied in deconstructing the pleasures offered in dominant art forms because they entail the subjection of woman to the fantasy of man.”4 But in Dwyer’s work the definition of pleasure is perhaps more positive, more Brechtian than deconstructive. In a culture where ”esthetic qualities" (form, style, and technique) are privileged over subject matter, an attraction to the latter is, as feminist psychoanalytic critic Jane Gallop suggests,

in some way forbidden and embarrassing. It is what marks [someone] as a lay [person] rather than a connoisseur. . . . That attraction becomes, for many of us who have a stake in our cultural sophistication, stupid, naive, unmentionable. How can we admit our resemblance to the 12-year-old girl who simply loves all pictures of horses, regardless of their formal and technical qualities? Because the attraction to subject matter is in some way forbidden by civilization, that attraction is charged and ambivalent . . . we experience the relation to subject matter in art as forbidden, powerful, desiring, and embarrassing.5

In these terms, Dwyer’s “embarrassing” engagement with subject matter would make her a “lay” artist, comfortably at home with even a preteen sensibility, making work that is unequivocally and pleasurably situated in the real world.

Given time, the work encourages what Gallop goes on to call an “erotics of engagement, a sexuality that is not in the object, however deeply hidden, but in the encounter.”6 With Dwyer’s apparently “easy” and accessible work, the traditional terms of the relationship between art object and viewer (that is, the powerful object confronting passive/receptive spectator, who cannot unravel its mysteries without the assistance of a critic or the artist) are altogether altered as the viewer’s immediate physical engagement with the pieces militates against his or her passivity. “I’m really satisfied,” Dwyer says, “with bringing you to a space in which to think about something, but not telling you what to think. People have to make their own valued conclusions about what they look at.”

In 1982, Dwyer organized an all-women show called “Public Vision” for White Columns in New York; the impetus came from her observation that men were doing expressionist painting, focusing on existential and personal concerns, whereas women’s work, much of it photographically derived, dealt with the exterior, public aspects of culture. Perhaps, in fact, because women’s art has been traditionally relegated to the sphere of the private and the domestic, a range of young women artists were seeking to upset the possibility of easy labeling. But Dwyer’s work reflects a somewhat different stance, one that cannot be situated clearly on any given half of this divided domain. Dwyer’s pieces, particularly the sculptural ones, are made for the domestic environment, but use the techniques and materials of the public sphere; while she employs a kind of intimate and specifically female language of the “personal,” she couches it in the format of advertisements whose only purpose is to sell something; and though she uses words, typically considered the domain of the mind, she uses them to engage people in an immediate physical way.

Playing on and with these contradictions, Black Hole, 1988, is a painting that has a large black ellipse in the center of a gridded, dark-blue celestial field. Across the hole is written “PERSONAL” in a dot matrix typeface. Here Dwyer equates the personal with the sexual, while at the same time suggesting that the personal is nothing more than public information, not to mention a figurative space through which information irretrievably falls.

“I used to like the idea of saying private things in public modes. Now I like to say responsible things in irresponsible modes.”

The separation of public and private domains is the twin of another traditional dichotomy, that of the mind and body; this split in Dwyer’s work also becomes a site of negotiation for the viewer,7 who becomes engaged in the simultaneous experience of two (or more) positions. In Head, 1987, the letters are made of 24-inch-high wood-grained Formica; the artist has painted the deep triangle formed by the upper part of the letter A bright red. Dwyer’s clearly having some fun here with the simple fact that she’s a redhead. But Head also offers itself as a codified, interiorized female sexual form in which, quite literally, the body—rather than being dominated by the mind—is an integral part of it. The title also suggests the slang term “giving head,” as well as recalling (to some of us, at least) the 1960s connotation of the term “a head.” As the viewer moves among such different, often irreconcilable positions or readings, the sense of “negotiation,” of active involvement in constructing the work’s meaning, provides an alternative to the concepts of mastery and authority implicit in the traditional relationship of object to viewer. This negotiation is somewhat different from what is termed “reader response theory,” in which the reader is considered responsible for the creation of meaning in any given text, since no two readers bring to a text or object the same experience, motivation, point of view, background, etc. Dwyer’s work invites and encourages an even more egalitarian exchange, one that Gallop has characterized as

“active receptivity,” . . . in which one contributes to seeing something that is really out there . . . in the world already, that is not simply a projection, but that we nevertheless do not just take in as purely passive consumers.8

Negotiation between viewer and object, then, is not an end but a process, one that “allows space to the subjectivities, identities and pleasures of audiences.”9 Dwyer’s work creates instead a process in which change, contra- diction, inconsistency, and digression might occur. It affirms that

a range of positions of identification may exist within any text; and that, within the social situation of their viewing, audiences may shift subject positions as they interact with the text. Such processes—far from being confined to the “high art” or political avant-garde work—are also a crucial source of cultural and formal regeneration. . . 10

It is true that Dwyer sometimes does more than encourage this negotiation. Some pieces demand it. Your Name Here, 1985, for example, consists of a Formica box with lights, on Plexiglas. At the same time we imagine ourselves basking in the limelight we’re asking, perhaps, “To what extent does my name reflect my ‘self’”? Similarly, Your Face, 1987, a hip-high construction of the eight letters that spell out its title (with the two words facing in opposite directions) sports its single 0 like a bright red lipsticked mouth opened in surprise. All the letters light up like a makeup mirror—suggesting that, in a sense, the work itself consists of us.

“The real issue is high culture or mass culture as distinct from culture itself. There’s this giant elephant in the middle of every gallery that no one’s paying attention to.”

Many contemporary artists prefer that their work “delay recognition/perception on the part of the beholder,”11 that it retain that element of “mystery” or “difficulty” which is considered endemic to modern art. Dwyer uses instead the techniques of those advertising designers who want to communicate with a large and diverse audience, and to do it fast. Her work, then, has a very familiar look, fooling us into thinking that we can “get it” right away. And unlike many of her contemporaries who are engaged in a critique of popular culture, or, as one critic (writing about a Whitney Biennial in which Dwyer’s work was included) put it, in “a kind of knowing, disengaged, unarticulated rejection of popular culture,”12 Dwyer’s work celebrates popular culture, which she sees as inseparable from culture at large. For instance, a 1988 piece entitled The Age of the Death of Irony seems to epitomize Dwyer’s own amused detachment from the stance of ironic detachment itself. By formulating the letters of the word in iron, in a kind of medievalized typeface, with the Y enclosed in brackets, Dwyer puns on both the materials and the meaning(s) of the word. ”The only place irony exists today is in terms of style or nostalgia,“ she says. ”The irony of real meaning is lost—it has to do with turning something back on yourself so you see it in a new way."

In part, Dwyer’s engaged rather than ironic stance toward mass culture reflects her strongly antielitist bias.13 Rather than forcing identification with the artist’s point of view, Dwyer’s work consistently "refuses stable points of identification, puts ‘the subject into process’ and invites the spectator into a play with language, form and identity.”14 A 1988 piece of Dwyer’s provides an altogether fitting example of this, being both its literal and figural representation. It is a reddish-orange laminated bas-relief, to be read backwards. The large size and dramatic three-dimensionality of the letters reverses the position of reader and text. Even as I look at it, 1 am back in the world of Alice, where rather than alternating scale, I am moving between inside and outside. I am all at once on the other side of the movie screen, so to speak, the object rather than the subject, the viewed rather than the viewer; I am the person and the image on whom a final, dramatic moment focuses and draws to a close; it is, for those watching, THE END.

Marcia Tucker is the director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York.

All quotes from Nancy Dwyer are taken from conversations with the author in May and June, 1989.



1. See John A. Walker, Art in the Age of Mass Media, London: Pluto Press, Ltd., 1983. p. 16.

2. Quoted in Hunter Drohojowska ,Nancy Dwyer, exhibition catalogue, New York: Josh Baer Gallery, 1988. n.p.

3. Christine Gledhill, “Pleasurable Negotiations,” in Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television, ed. E. Deidre Pribram, London and New York: Verso, 1988, p. 65.

4. Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art, London and New York: Routledge, 1988, p. 180.

5. Jane Gallop, Thinking Through The Body, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 137-38.

6. Ibid., p. 138.

7. Gallop, in ibid., p. 2, notes: "Accomplice to the mind-body split, in capitalist patriarchy, is the division between public and private.”

8. Ibid., p. 155.

9. Gledhill, p. 72.

10. Ibid., p. 73.

11. Walker, p. 60.

12. James Gardner, "A Pleasant Walk through the Whitney Biennial,” Commonweal, 5 June 1987 , p. 358.

13. On the appropriation of elements of popular culture by artists, Walker comments: “What the bourgeois culture admires and patronizes is high culture, the fine arts. Appreciation and knowledge of this sphere distinguishes the bourgeoisie from their social inferiors. Hence, the division between high and low culture is essential to their rule. . . . By adopting a distanced but amused . . . attitude toward mass culture, the artists who exploited it as a source of material were able to assimilate it into the realm of fine art without relinquishing their ’superior’ viewpoint . . . miraculously, (dominant culture] had appropriated its antithesis without abandoning its own elitist values” (p. 43).

14. Gledhill, p. 65.