San Francisco

“Image/Word: The Art of Reading”

New Langton Arts

The theme of this exhibition—the cohabiting of verbal and visual materials in ostensibly purely visual artworks—was formalist and timely. In his essay for the catalogue, Barrett Watten says, “The works . . . argue to be read rather than interpreted, and the act of reading by the viewer is intended, explicitly by many of the artists, as part of the work:’ He also says that ”the work is addressed directly to the way it is understood. This act of understanding will involve, inevitably, a politics and a practice on the part of the viewer.”

The common stance of the nine “Image/Word” artists is to be formally and/or strategically shrewd, thematically complex, and declarative as to their intentions, which are mostly honorable in terms of what Watten calls “social space”: they want to unveil the uncertainties and deviousness of public language so that its real and often multiple meanings can be confronted openly and perhaps changed. Among the works exhibited, Michael Lebron’s composite Cibachrome prints, which have the look of public-service messages, are the most sophisticated. They propose an alternative rhetoric, and because their shrewdness bears upon a cool-headed manipulation of peoples’ lives, they are doubly chilling. In Contempt: a tool for modern times, 1985, the good-news blurb proclaiming the “tool” partially obscures the actual product. The image is a diagonal shot of a major thoroughfare with a windbreaker lying spread in the foreground, overlaid by a text about “smart management” methods. In her “War Comics” diptychs, 1985, Lisa Bloomfield reshuffles images from old Life magazines into layout variations on the theme of tension and release. Underscored by snippets of narrative (“They spoke about the fear of suffocation / There was nothing to do but comply”), the “caught” citizens of ’40s, peak-period photojournalism bear an uncanny resemblance to the shadowy figures of period movies (Carol Reed’s The Third Man, say, or Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai). Monique Safford’s uses of titles and captions are more syllogistic. To arrive at the point of Bird Watching in Ethiopia, 1984—it’s about feminist rage—you rummage among low-effect clues (an Ingres odalisque and attendant in a montage tilted over a text: “ . . . someone awoke in a sweat, thinking as whipping boys think. So began the refusal.”).

Some doses of pedantry proved inevitable. Connie Fitzsimons’ The Object Is Positioned/The Position is Preserved, 1985, was rescued from rhetorical aimlessness by dint of its clunky execution. Its four panels and two columns of wall text were uniformly misscaled and the paintings of two museum-piece throne chairs were more inane than their point about the absurdities of empire. In Tad Savinar’s silk-screens, witty messages pick up formal slack. His best was The Cure, 1985, with its rebus of prescribed leisure activities. Pedantry is also a byproduct of this culture’s protracted skill at “seeing into and seeing into” (in John Ashbery’s phrase) its own syntactical debris. A case in point is Mitchell Syrop’s Lift and Separate, 1985, a sort of semiotic boardgame to while away meanings in a rhapsody of see-through attitude identification, which would be endless though of small use. (Shrewdness here comes full circle and spins off into self-contempt.)

The agreeableness of the New Langton Arts space—a spacious and beautifully skylit avant-garde protectory—seemed to delay many of the works’ prospective efficacies. Those works that argue for more open public situations (such as Lebron’s) looked bright but stranded—in cold storage as it were, pending delivery to their rightful contexts. Allen Ruppersberg’s mock fairground posters were alone in seeming perfectly homeless, insouciant as to whatever context. And Bob Jones’ Words That Cut, 1985—a volley of catalytic insults and photographs printed on cardboard bottle-rocket wrappers—could work anywhere, but only if the fireworks were permitted to be set off (which in this instance they were not). The most exemplary position in this show was occupied by Edgar Heap of Birds’ Death from the Top, 1983. A portable and necessarily homeless monument to social identity (as registered in the near destruction of the Cheyenne Indians), it is magisterially matter-of-fact and as grim as the logic that provoked it. In his catalogue statement, Heap of Birds writes, “ . . . we find it effective to challenge the white man through our use of the mass media. As in American business and culture, in order to survive one must communicate a mass appeal.

Bill Berkson