Thomas Locher, Lumpenalphabet (Z), 2019, silk screen on acrylic glass, 18 7⁄8 × 18 7⁄8 × 2". From the series “Lumpenalphabet,” 2019.

Thomas Locher, Lumpenalphabet (Z), 2019, silk screen on acrylic glass, 18 7⁄8 × 18 7⁄8 × 2". From the series “Lumpenalphabet,” 2019.

Thomas Locher and Willem de Rooij

In David Mitchell’s 2010 novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the protagonist, a young Dutch East India Company clerk stationed in Japan in the late eighteenth century, surprises the court of the magistrate of Nagasaki by speaking Japanese, which he has been learning in secret. No one has ever heard a foreigner speak Japanese, and afterward, one of the stunned advisers mocks the Dutchman’s accent for sounding “like a crow’s,” whereupon the magistrate chides his subordinate by asking if he speaks Dutch “like a nightingale.” This scene encapsulates the dual character of language. On the one hand, it is a system to be studied and acquired through hard work, the domain of linguistics. On the other hand, this rational system can be beautiful, mysterious, and startling; it is lyrical like birdsong. A comparable synthesis of intellectual rigor and poetic sensibility permeated Thomas Locher and Willem de Rooij’s exhibition “Modern Alibis.”

Locher showed “Lumpenalphabet,” 2019, a series of twenty-six reliefs, each based on the photograph of one letter of the alphabet formed with old fabrics. These images were silk-screened in one color onto acrylic glass before being thermoformed to create volume. The same mold consisting of the letter A in both upper- and lowercase—representing the Lacanian big Other (Autre), referring to the symbolic order, and little other (autre) of the imaginary order—was used for every letter. The superimposition of the colorless form of A/a onto photographic representations of all the letters of the alphabet created a dense interplay of the physical, pictorial, and textual. The series’s title, meanwhile, refers to Marx’s notion of the Lumpenproletariat, an underclass lacking class consciousness. Other theorists, such as Mikhail Bakunin and, later, Frantz Fanon, recognized the revolutionary potential of this social stratum specifically on account of its exclusion from the dominant capitalist or colonial systems. Does Locher think these letters have become powerless as politics continues to decouple language from truth, as words become lumpen, literally “in rags”? Or does he believe such abused language still has the potential to bring about radical change? While the piece is fiercely theoretical, Locher leaves ample ambiguity, showcasing a rare ability to fuse academic discourse with artistic depth.

The ensemble of interconnected works by de Rooij consisted of three tapestries on stretchers (We Really Log, Regrown Lab, and Paring Elk, all 2015) and a vase of flowers on a pedestal (Bouquet XV, 2015). The fabric from which the trio is composed is tightly woven from pink, brown, and yellow yarn, mixing shades borrowed from the most reductive, Lego-level representation of the colors of human skin. The ensuing hue is a delicate reddish brown, rich in texture and tonal detail. De Rooij then had a fabricator produce a vase and pedestal with surfaces approximating this color. This process resulted in stout brown objects subtly covered in speckles of paint. Lastly, a florist was commissioned to create a bouquet whose color scheme is based on that of the vase: a lush and voluptuous yet oddly muted arrangement of flowers. At each stage of the (re)translation of his chosen color scheme, de Rooij expanded its complexity: The three colors representing the most egregious simplification society imposes on humans mutated into the dazzling intricacy of the flowers.

These two equally sophisticated but radically different practices made for a strikingly consistent exhibition through an intelligent use of the gallery’s idiosyncratic space—a sequence of variously sized rooms, corridors, and stairs. Locher’s “Lumpenalphabet” started in the first room downstairs with the letter Z and continued into a corridor, through the office, and to a second small room. The large gallery that followed was dedicated to the pieces by de Rooij, after which the last room showed the remaining letters of Locher’s alphabet, terminating with the letter A. The exhibition flawlessly combined two distinct spatial experiences, akin to the x and y axes of a Cartesian coordinate system, forming a coherent whole that was at once articulate and suffused with restrained poetry.