Robert Fones

S.L. Simpson

Robert Fones’ latest show finds him mapping out fresh territory into his investigation of the history and problematics of letterforms. The exhibition comprised two distinct sets of works: “Lathed Letterforms,” 1997, a series of sculptures derived from individual letters; and “Date Tablet Paintings,” 1997, which many visitors did not see since the paintings were hung adjacent to the main gallery space and bizarrely cordoned off with a metal bar.

The “Date Tablet Paintings” are actual-size oil-on-linen renditions of the stone and galvanized metal date-tablets found on buildings throughout southern Ontario. The original proprietary tablets trace capitalist expansion in the area from 1850 onward through the transition from handcrafted materials to industrial fabrication. While the early tablets proudly announce ownership of a particular building, later tablets appear to drop the possessive altogether. However, when seen in relation to one another, Way’s Block 1874, for instance, suggests a more tentative assertion of property than the innate sense of entitlement contained in Steele Block 1890. Although the artist has made some subtle corrective adjustments (like changing awkward spacing, or filling in areas where a stone-tablet had crumbled), his letterforms are still marked by a slight quirkiness and inconsistency that postindustrial typefaces have utterly effaced. Fones’ painterly treatment reveals the presence of a human hand without overemphasizing it—his brushstrokes are evident, but modest, and the palette limited to mid-contrast grays.

In contrast, the primary hues of “Lathed Letterforms” were especially bright against the expansive white walls of the main gallery. Initially these small pieces look like shelved assemblages of uniformly sized cones and cylinders, until it becomes clear that there is a code at work governing their form, position, and coloration. For practical reasons, Fones decided against curved letterforms, like “0,” so they wouldn’t roll off the shelves. Also, the color of each individual piece is codified on the basis of its form (e.g., red for conical shapes). In his artist’s statement for the show, Fones explains that besides being one of the tools on a computer-modeling program, “lathing” is one of the oldest mechanized technologies for shaping wood and stone. As with the “Date Tablet Paintings,” he means to evoke the Industrial Revolution. The works are words whose letters “have been spun around on an axis,” he writes. Some are single words like “WHIZ” or the palindrome “KAYAK” and others tripartite word-works like “TATE/TIVE/TILE,” or “FAT/FLAT/THIN,” which is arranged in order of ascendancy from one to three dimensions (“thin” being one-dimensional). The choice of words (or word fragments) is relatively arbitrary, but the effect is one of modularity—like graphemic tinker toys. When I try to read the words from above, they look like sequences of dots and circles, flattened back into nonsense. So without regular syntax to guide the us, we have to look for different relationships and rules. If we read to create meaning, Fones seems to suggest, we might also savor the absence of it.

Lisa Gabrielle Mark