London

Art & Language, Nobody Spoke, 2013–14, seventeen chairs, alogram on canvas over plywood with acrylic and mixed media, dimensions variable.

Art & Language, Nobody Spoke, 2013–14, seventeen chairs, alogram on canvas over plywood with acrylic and mixed media, dimensions variable.

Art & Language

Lisson Gallery | 27 Bell Street | London

Art & Language, Nobody Spoke, 2013–14, seventeen chairs, alogram on canvas over plywood with acrylic and mixed media, dimensions variable.

The English Conceptual artists Art & Language have been art-world irritants since 1968, fiercely witty agents provocateurs determined to debunk modernist assumptions about authenticity, authorship, and language through publications, drawings, paintings, and performances. Although many people have participated in Art & Language at one time or another, today the group is mainly a collaboration between Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden. This show included the group’s familiar mix of mediums, from large-scale abstract paintings to sculptural installations and performance, to present a provocative and engaging dissection of the perennial art-historical problem of description, highlighting the pleasures and limits of applying words to things.

In the gallery’s main room, the installation that gave the show its title, Nobody Spoke, 2013–14, consisted of seventeen small chairs, each made from ten canvases nailed together and painted with seemingly random black-and-white images, lined up as though waiting to be filled by an audience. Each canvas was covered in a mixture of visual and textual motifs, many sampled from the group’s long history. On a nearby wall, the series “Drawings from the Winter,” 2013–14, repeated some of the same imagery. A forty-minute video of Speaking of “Nobody Spoke,” 2014—a performance with the chairs from the opening night by long-term Art & Language collaborators the Jackson Pollock Bar, a performance company based in Freiburg, Germany—was played on a screen next to the empty chairs. In it, the theater group performs a script written by the artists. The dialogue of the protagonists, named simply A and B, is accompanied by the occasional provocative heckle from speaker C. Beginning as a simple description of the chairs’ appearance, their conversation builds into an abstract philosophical debate about the nature of ekphrasis: the verbal or textual portrayal of a work of art.

Four recent paintings from the series “Sea Ghost,” 2014, combine a mix of knowing, pseudoexpressive, and second-hand painterly gestures sliced through and framed by neat geometric strips of varied patterns, textures, and colors. The strips cut through the main image to reveal fragments of alternative scenes and abstract motifs, as though one were layered on top of another. The coffered ceiling of the Whitney Museum of American Art was a recurrent trope, as were trompe l’oeil patches of wood grain painted in different colors. The overall effect was a kind of visual camouflage: “It’s as if art is concealing art,” notes protagonist B. Another room contained “Tell Me, Have You Ever Seen Me? II,” 2014, a series of word portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Vladimir Putin, and other world figures. Each account is typed on a single sheet of paper and details every shadow, shade, and line of the face in a matter-of-fact language that replaces, yet conspicuously fails to adequately replace, a painted portrait concealed beneath it on a second sheet of paper, just visible through the top one. The literally paper-thin separation between word and image only emphasizes the gulf that exists between the two.

Resistance to straightforward meaning or interpretation has been a mainstay of Art & Language’s Conceptual practice from the outset. But this is not merely ambivalence or obfuscation for its own sake. They make us work hard, but they too are working hard—with, not against, their audience. None of the group’s occasional lapses into intellectual pomposity were in evidence, and “Nobody Spoke” treated viewers to a thoughtful, intellectual, and playful ramble through the thorny problem of how to say what you see. It was, in the typically absurdist style of Art & Language, an essay of sorts on art and language.

Jo Applin