New York

Rosa Almeida

John Weber Gallery

In general, verbal art—that is, literature—admits the graphic image only to attain the effect of a simpler, more direct presentation than would be possible in words; symmetrically enough, the visual arts sometimes resort to writing in order to seem more direct than depiction might allow. Each mode might occur within the other as a form of simplification. In Rosa Almeida’s work, however, where the verbal and the visual are, for once, on exactly even terms, nothing ever seems to simplify anything.

The work’s components are simple enough, it’s true—bits of trivial though sometimes emotional conversation (“I want to leave let’s go,” “stop it ssssstop you’re hurting me”) and snatches of song lyrics (“your kiss is sweeter than honey and guess what so is my money”) mixed with lots of involuted doodling and long, meandering lines, all executed in various colors and scripts. (Although the artist is Portuguese, her work speaks English well, if not always idiomatically.) The appearance of all this is improvisational rather than composed, the performance of a rather contingent, even arbitrary confluence between the present of inscription and the memory of innumerable situations invoked in that present. (Whether this appearance conceals some far more definite plan is, naturally, an open question.) Even the boundaries between works seemed undefined; the exhibition, titled “Somewhere Without Language,” included two wall drawings (both of which incorporated photographic elements reproducing similar drawings), drawings on paper, and photographs, but they all felt like excerpts or fragments from a single incomplete work. If the overall image resembles anything at all it is a map, but of a territory so undefined and unsettled that the multiple revisions can no longer be coordinated. The viewer’s part is fragmented too: There is no single path through this work; you have to look back and forth and sometimes upside down. For that matter you’re constantly torn between looking and reading, and somehow, though neither seems to get you very far, the rhythm of alternating between the two modes has its own pleasures. Almeida’s control over a process that gives every indication of being wildly out of control is astonishing.

In this resistance to simplification, this imperviousness to anything like encapsulation. Almeida’s work attains the character of thought—its fluidity and expansiveness but also its discontinuities and slippages, its distractions and confusions. In this it is quite different from a good deal of Conceptual art, where the “idea” always aspires to the perspicuity of an image. Almeida’s use of writing is closer to that of an artist like Suzanne McClelland, in whose paintings the hallucinatory echoing of banal yet oddly charged words or phrases as they arise from and fade back into the density of matter evokes a space that is as much acoustic as it is visual. The difference is that, for Almeida, writing’s “other” is not matter but line, and whereas McClelland’s arena is always that of a given canvas or sheet of paper, Almeida’s is attached only provisionally to a given support; it is closer to the abstract space of writing than to the embodied space of painting. But this space is never the rigidly ordered one in which we laboriously learned, at school, to marshal our words in straight lines; and amid the ramifying, unkempt lines—multiplying, colliding, crossing, mixing, separating—writing ultimately shows itself to be mere fibrillation, a sort of linguistic excess.

Barry Schwabsky