Joseph Grigely

Joseph Grigely’s recent exhibition in Limoges, entitled “Conversations & Portraits,” presented a number of the works he calls “conversations.” Each of these pieces consists of a typed, framed text that sketches a particular situation; this text is hung on a wall along with an array of colored pieces of paper covered with handwritten messages. When he meets people, Grigely, who has been mute since an accident that took place when he was eleven, asks them to write down what they would like to say to him by using pieces of colored paper that he carries in his pocket. The messages in his work are thus the products of real-life conversations. As sign language remains the language of a minority, a language with which most hearing people are not familiar, these works reflect the inevitable exchange of small notes that results whenever Grigely needs to communicate with someone. Far from seeming to regret the loss of his hearing, however, he reminds us that words are the essence of creative communication.

Although at first glance it may seem that Grigely fetishizes the past, and that he strives to probe into the nature of memory by archiving conversations that might otherwise be forgotten, in fact he retains only a portion of the results of his exchanges. In much the same way, not all of his conversations result in an artwork. He sifts through the notes that he has been given, rereading and recontextualizing them, weaving relationships out of incongruities, so that what emerges is something reminiscent of the Surrealist game of the exquisite corpse. Through his collaged word sequences and hasty explanatory drawings, Grigely develops a poetics of distance, of presence, and of absence—his dialogues remain incomplete.

The collages of texts, which for Grigely function much like drawings or still lifes, outline stories that are nonlinear and fragmented, so that his work is situated somewhere between spoken and written language. At the same time, he arranges the pieces of colored paper with an impressive formal economy. In addition, although they do not suggest any particular aesthetic goal, Grigely’s “portraits,” a series of photographs of people’s hands taken as they are writing notes on pieces of paper, manage to convey the character and personalities of those involved.

The exhibition also included two installations consisting of tables that seemed to have been left untouched after a meal, as if to reconstruct the situations in which some of Grigely’s conversations were generated. A table apparently taken from a bistro was littered with the vestiges of a party—an empty beer bottle, a full ashtray, a lit candle—while another, which seemed to have been taken from a restaurant, was strewn with the remains of a small breakfast, including an empty teacup, a basket of fruit, dirty dishes, and newspapers. On each a pile of papers had also been left in disarray; these were notes that evoked nonlinear conversations, open exchanges with no discernible order or specific goal.

Jérôme Sans

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.