Art & Language

Lisson Gallery / ICA

Since the late ’70s, Art & Language has addressed the issue of cultural legibility by producing pictures intentionally susceptible to radical misreading. This project continues and develops with their current exhibition entitled “Hostage Paintings: The Dark Series.” A complimentary group—“The Light Series”—is being presented concurrently at the ICA as part of a survey that extends from 1987 to the present.

Art & Language’s work of the last decade took form through a conglomeration of oddly devised modes and mechanisms of representation. A short list of those strategies includes: camouflage (in a series of portraits of Lenin in the allover style of Jackson Pollock, from 1979–80), willfull incompetence (the “painted by mouth” series, 1981–82), the scotomization of vision (in the virtual monochromes of Index: The Studio at 3 Wesley Place in the Dark, 1982, and Impressionism Returning Sometime in the Future, 1984), and shifts of scale (in the mise-en-abîme of Index: Incidents in a Museum, 1985–87). Along the way, this comprehensive defamation of representation and expression in picture making sets up and knocks down cultural icons ranging from Courbet to Pollock.

The current work picks up that thread, referencing the traditions of landscape painting, Impressionism, and Cubism via a complex system of facture. The above-mentioned traditions appear in the pictures as moments in a progressive destabilization of image making. The process begins with an image of a local landscape that is juxtaposed with a deformed text reading “surf.” The surface, which is thickly painted, is subsequently squashed by a piece of glass that is slightly smaller than the stretcher support affixed to the canvas. The glass functions as a collage element rather than as glazing. In some pictures the landscape is flanked by a monochrome band (Minimalism, or Impressionist framing device?); in others, a printed text is affixed to the glass (Conceptual art, or a language-masque?). The resulting découpage is a constellation of legibility bleeding into illegibility; a zany reiteration, perhaps, of the ur-history of Picasso and Braque between 1907–1913.

The programmatic nature of the series, coupled with the number of works generated, give us a sense that the whole project is threatened by entropy. But that is only if we deny that the group’s “public face”—the work they exhibit—is but a rhetorical facet of a larger whole. That whole has to do with “why” these pictures were produced as much as “how” they were produced, or could be produced at all. This is a compressed way of saying that the members of Art & Language understand the existential dimension associated with the project of exploding the dialectic of the nomination of objects by language, and its inextricable link to the administrative sites of culture (language, history, and its misreading—the museum) it seeks to address. The existential dimension is extensive, largely invisible, but not entirely unrecoverable if we keep in mind that their project is subject to similar deformations. The game is to be able to distinguish the feint from the slash. You might well misread the misreading. Art & Language reconstitutes the link between “representation” and “style” and suffers the price for a nonideology of style: the continuous necessity—and anxiety—of reinventing oneself stylistically.

Michael Corris