In the Transparency of Things, Vladimir Nabokov asserts that to remain in the present moment, one must not be distracted with the embedded history of objects — for example a stone on a field that has been trampled by animals for countless years. Instead, one must focus on only the surface of such objects so that they become transparent, and the present can be fully occupied. Similar to the stone, the phrases in the works collected here contain infinite historical associations, and their future meaning is impossible to know, but personally and communally engaging with these works and their language offers a way of remaining present in the moment, and the present is the only time when true emotion is possible.
The artists who made these word-works experiment deeply and widely with text and image in relation to emotion — they use clues and context to create deep resonances between the words, their surroundings, and potential interpretations. By incorporating emotionally charged, often ambiguous, and sometimes appropriated phrases into various media — photography, sculpture, painting, and interactive performance — they invite a subjective reaction from the viewer. These artists deny the notion of singularity of meaning, and instead play with the fluidity of language — its shifting contextual potential. They make images, objects, and activities that occupy the layered dimensions of language, and they question and reveal how meaning is generated.
Tucker Neel's interactive telephone project, I Will Always Love You Project, invites people to call in and perform a version of the afore-mentioned song, most recently made famous by Whitney Houston in the movie The Bodyguard, and originally written and recorded by Dolly Parton. The participant's task is to cover a cover, to imitate and enact an excessively emotional song, and in the process, to make it their own. The inevitable comparison of their version to previous versions of the song creates an audible and historical resonance / dissonance, and the participant's identity is subject to becoming entangled with iconic characterizations of Whitney Houston, or her character in the film, or perhaps the performer may connect with how the narrative of the song intersects his or her personal experience. A relation between speech and action is set into motion, and the participant is asked to feel love by saying "I love."
Nicholas Hamilton's Remember 1690 is a photographic record of an ephemeral intervention he made in the Northern Irish countryside. He placed letters spelling a militaristic slogan, usually painted on sectarian murals in urban centers in Northern Ireland, in a quiet and rural landscape. The letters are made of silk flowers, commonly used at funerals to spell out the name of the deceased or a term of affection associated with them. By altering the substance, location, aesthetic, and ritual associations of this inflammatory command, he sets forth a dissonant space between the idyllic and seemingly peaceful landscape and an underlying sense of past and potential future violence. The words in the landscape function both as subject and caption, making visible layers of emotional history that are otherwise quietly embedded deep in the land and in its inhabitants' personal histories.
Joy Drury Cox's One Liner is an edition of 250 six-inch rulers printed with the words, "Nothing measures up to you." The rulers are industrially produced, identical and functional but because they are ½ the expected length, they seem to be intentionally limited in their function. This limitation is mirrored in the ambiguous phrase printed on the ruler, which suggests an absence and a presence with a sense longing and devotion. The viewer is invited to fill the phrase with personal meaning — thus granting the ruler an ability generate and measure subjectivity, while also providing standardized units of measurement derived from the scale of the human body. Various and infinite associations can be made in regards to this mystery, and this openness of meaning is precisely this tool's function.
The individual images that make up Andrew Graham's array of paintings, Organized Religion, are appropriated from Christian fundamentalist signs used during public demonstrations. By removing the signs from their users, indexing and standardizing them, Graham points to what Boris Groys in Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction refers to as a system of ritual statements that are not subject to rational proof but that gain their power primarily through repetition and blind faith of the speaker. These statements are designed to impose and make judgment upon the lives of others — to limit freedom and personal choice. By carefully hand-painting each sign Graham infuses them with his own intention and lays bare the irrationality of the original meanings of these hateful messages. With his heightened scrutiny, these messages begin to unravel and become re-configured. For example, No Special Laws for Fags, can be easily interpreted as "provide homosexuals with the same liberties as the rest of society."
Transformation of meaning through language is a common theme of the work of these four artists. Beneath the surfaces of these works, meanings ebb and flow, and the experience of engaging with them is never the same twice. Existing language is re-configured to new purposes, and the emotion left with the viewer is one of positivity and possibility — empowering the viewer to create his or herself and make change in the world.
David B. Smith is a visual artist, photographer, curator, teacher, and musician living in Brooklyn. His work focuses on processes of conception, creation, and deconstruction of thought and form. His work is designed to slow down these processes and articulate and illuminate the making of emotion and meaning. Installation is the framework for his experiments in photography, sculpture, performance, video, drawing, sound, and any other media he can get his hands on. He also runs an art space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn called davidsmithproject and is in the one man band, DOOM TRUMPET. His work has been shown recently at spaces such as PS1, Exit Art, John Connelly Presents, and NADA Miami. Links to his various projects can be found at www.thedavidsmith.com.