Johanna Calle, Cerca (Fence), 2016, typewritten text on notary paper, 39 3/8 × 55 1/2".

Johanna Calle, Cerca (Fence), 2016, typewritten text on notary paper, 39 3/8 × 55 1/2".

Johanna Calle

Johanna Calle, Cerca (Fence), 2016, typewritten text on notary paper, 39 3/8 × 55 1/2".

Quiet and well measured, Johanna Calle’s exhibition “Semántica” (Semantics) comprised a carefully selected group of works that revealed most of the Colombian artist’s aesthetic concerns. Her practice is rooted in an ambiguous place between language and image, or rather, in one systematically polluted by both. As the show’s title suggested, her work goes far beyond formalism, involving drawing and writing as methodologies of understanding. Over the years, linguistic signifiers often related to the social and political complexity of her country’s recent history have unfolded as fragmented, inconclusive, or simply illegible; on the one hand, they’ve portrayed a critical position toward her country’s reality, and on the other, they’ve underscored the visual potential of writing itself.

Returning after three years abroad in 1995, Calle was confronted with the dramatic turmoil of her country. This encounter ineluctably shaped the sense of presentness that runs through her work. An inescapable commitment to her home soil pushed the artist to perform exhaustive research on a variety of issues regarding power structures, land use, armed conflict, and the disappearance of children. Such was the intensity with which she approached these themes that she avoided conventional and bare representation and utilized materials literally drawn from these topics: hence her use of wire, one of the materials with which the makeshift buildings of Bogotá’s slums are held together. Another recurrent material was cotton, on which she sewed elusive images of abandoned children’s faces. Calle regards these formal procedures as part of a wide spectrum of alternatives to conventional assumptions around the act of drawing, and to also see her use these materials as a support for writing is not rare, for, as aforementioned, the two disciplines become an almost indiscernible practice, both insisting on the what and on the how in equal measure.

The first room in this show included five works, each titled Cerca (Fence), 2016. Like many of the artist’s previous efforts, these pieces critically tackle the issue of territory. These are some of Calle’s most incisive and sadly timeless works, for boundaries are an ongoing problem in Colombia. Various-size sheets of paper formerly used in old accounting offices serve as the surface on which the artist typed texts forming the shapes of trees. The texts are not subjective commentaries but excerpts from official laws regarding land use. Calle’s cryptic typing makes the content undecipherable. Legibility, however, would not help much, for—and this is a key aspect of the work—the language used in these laws is strange to common people, who are, as always, the ones who suffer. The concept of limit is laid out in many directions in these pieces. Evoking different levels of tension between the real and the represented, the work becomes a territory in its own right; it portrays the everlasting educational disparity between officialdom and everyday citizens, whose vernacular idiom vanishes relentlessly; finally, the work conveys the sliding of text into image, and vice versa.

Works in the gallery’s main space further exemplified Calle’s interest in the intermingling of language and image, and showed how it relates to an intense lifelong devotion to music. These were part of the series titled “Fuga” (Fugue), 2009, whose moniker refers to the musical form characterized by the contrapuntal superposition of divergent melodies. In these works, however, sheets of staff paper are punctuated not by musical notes but by hypodermic needles that penetrate the paper. Sewing is a form of writing for Calle, just as music is a form of language, and her synthesis of divergent forms can be piercing.

Javier Hontoria