New York

Gary Bachman

Wolff Gallery

In his recent installation Gary Bachman amassed a monumental array of 1,000 drawings, all culled from dictionary illustrations. He copied each illustration by hand, using ink on paper in an 8-by-10-inch format, then hung these “plates” on panels in groups of 25. The entire series is alphabetized from beginning to end by the name of the subject. Although the work of a single illustrator comprises its source material, Bachman’s project differs from other, more typical appropriation gestures in that the source itself is decidedly generic, with the question of authorship largely a matter of in-difference. The illustrations strive to match the apparent anonymity of the various words, but in these images some latent sense of the topical, the immediate, the sensual, gradually rises up. Accordingly, Bachman’s citations exploit this slow resistance in order to reveal some fundamental disparities and overlaps between art and language.

At first blush, working from the dictionary would promise to yield a relatively objective set of imagery, uncolored by personal bias. But the kind of subject matter that calls for illustration and the kind of picture that can in turn be drawn sharply delineate the results. Since this method valorizes the tangible, the dialectic between things and their names dramatically overshadows processes of being and becoming. Accordingly, the typical takes precedence over the particular, occluding the broad categories of Western art (portraiture, landscape, still life). The focus is typological, not narrative—a sort of abject structuralist paradise.

Under this constraint, it is the categorization of clothing, tools, and architecture (culture) on the one hand, and animals, plants, and minerals (nature) on the other, that demands to be depicted. Curiously, toolmaking and classification stem from the same linguistic propensity, i.e., “getting a handle on the world.” The play between these two modes of articulation involves apprehension and comprehension. While the ensemble of all possible tools is governed by a syntax of sorts, nouns especially become implements that shape an otherwise amorphous mass of things, living and dead. The way this collection of word- pictures adds up to a supposedly objective world concerns not so much the sensuous experience of a living subject as it does a specific, but isolated, effect of language upon the world. The Whorf-Sapir hypothesis suggests how language cuts up the semantic continuum and thereby greatly prefigures our prospective reality. In this instance, a new series of divi- sions might at the very least produce a distinctly different collection of pictures. But given the conventions Bachman pin- points, language remains strangely inert. One can’t help but wonder just what’s at stake in these seemingly ingenuous drawings. Do the pictures illustrate the words, as they seem to at first? Or the words, the pictures? The material heterogeneity of the objectified image inexorably resists what is held out as total linguistic commensurability. And the idea of language as a hermetically closed system proscribes flux, its most important aspect, a priori. Ironically, it is the urge to capture and preserve language as a thing in itself that denies it its basis in human activity and its potential for social transformation. With the dictionary illustrations our vision of the world is gently nudged toward either a vista of autonomous objects or an idyll of subjective contemplation. Bachman’s survey alludes to the inadequacies of both poles of this normative opposition—which are really only two sides of the same idealist coin.

John Miller