New York

Megan Williams

John Post Lee Gallery

In the Talmud, the righteous, by variously combining the letters that comprise the ineffable names of God, attempt to find the divine Word that creates a living being. The Cabalists, it is said, succeeded in finding this mystical word and thus created a man. Golem, which literally means “shapeless mass,” is the name given to this man. Megan Williams has revived this Jewish legend in one of a group of pastel-and-watercolor pieces that tend to look like apocalyptic versions of Mighty Mouse cartoons (she worked for many years in effects animation). One image, entitled Golems, 1992, in which three figures emerge from a fiery whirlwind of oranges and browns, could be an outtake from a strip showing the golems’ descent through the vortex of creation.

Legend has it that the golem, although born of a word, never learned to speak, and Williams’ sculptures, made principally of books, as well as her pastels, are sensitive to questions of language. For instance, Untitled, 1992, shows a smooth, featureless head sticking out its abnormally long, curled tongue. Floating before it in a firmament of violet pastels is a cloud of word particles cut out—probably from some dictionary—and pasted onto the paper. The words are so fragmented that they are no longer recognizable. The head itself is limned by a background of iridescent yellow, which is to say that, significantly enough, it is comprised of negative space. Yet it is not thoroughly empty. Pasted on top of the head, perhaps like a yarmulke, is a cap of paper decorated with diagrams of various knots. The import is clear: I’m tongue-tied. Williams’ conundrum is much like that of the golem: since we are to some degree created (or subjectified) by language, what happens when words fail us? This sense of frustration finds its three-dimensional analogue in Books with Lectern, 1990. An upright wooden lectern faces a corner of the gallery. Before it, an edition of the Harvard Classics has been artfully suspended in the air by a system of strings, so that it appears as if the Thousand and One Nights, Famous Prefaces, Descartes, and the rest of the canon have been thrown aloft by an uncommonly powerful gust of wind. Moreover, the lectern itself is a speaker’s nightmare: there’s no ledge to hold things on its sheer surface, there’s no light, and yet it puts you into the dreaded performative position, freeze-framing that moment when your mind goes blank.

Though schizophrenia (via Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) is the current language paradigm of choice, dyslexia better describes Williams’ disposition. Language crowds in upon the schizophrenic; he hears too many voices; they impale him, he is subjectified. Contrarily, language flees the dyslexic, leaves him cold; when he looks at a page he sees not text but black marks. The dyslexic thus approaches language as pure surface. When Williams confronts a dictionary, she likewise treats it not as a reference work but as an object. She bores wormy holes in it, as in Untitled [Dictionary with Holes], 1992; she makes a container out of it, as in Untitled [ Dictionary with Lid], 1990; she gold-leafs it and proceeds to carve an architectural model into it, as in Amphitheater, 1991–92. It is almost as if the linguistic estrangement felt in works like Books with Lectern provokes a perverse sense of retribution: if words won’t give themselves up to me, then I will destroy them. It is like the silent golem who turned against its creator: we may all be constituted in and by language, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are controlled by it. Even if we are capable of rebelling, we may never win. There is always another dictionary to be destroyed. The legend of the golem may well serve as a cautionary tale: in retaliation for its attempted escape it had its divine name taken away and thus was put to death.

Keith Seward