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Text me babe!

Gina Fairley

Artists have been using text in their art since the 1960s, but a suite of new exhibitions presented nationally reboot the genre with a contemporary inflection.
Text me babe!

Jon Campbell, Stacks On, 2010, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art © the artist

There are a number of exhibitions at the moment focused on artists who use text as the foundation of their art making. It is hardly a new idea – text and art have been intertwined for centuries; think of medieval illuminated manuscripts with their elaborate illustrations, or Surrealist Rene Magitte’s words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This pipe isn’t a pipe”) slashed across a painting.


With the emergence of Conceptual Art in the 1960s, text increasingly became a medium in itself. Are we seeing a next wave of interest?

At a time when we are surrounded by faux-news and instant messaging, in a society where everyone has an opinion and we are drowning in unnecessary words, a number of artists are turning to the power of language to reboot public thought.

In the past it was political posters, a subversion of advertising, clever word play and appropriation of form that characterised text art – through the work of artists such as Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holtzer, Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Indiana, On Kawara, Christopher Wood, Mel Bochner, and closer to home Robert MacPherson.

Joseph Kosuth,'W.F.T. #1' [yellow], 2008, Yellow neon mounted directly on the wall; courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

One of the greats in the history of that genre was the American Joseph Kosuth. Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne is currently presenting a solo exhibition of Kosuth’s work, A short history of my thought (7 October – 25 November), which stretches back to the 1960s with pieces such as Titled (Art As Idea As Idea)’ [why] [how] (Webster), 1967. 

Spanning 50 years, this large body of Kosuth’s text and neon works draws on sources ranging from Mondrian, Darwin and newspaper comic strips, to the writings of Freud and Beckett. The gallery said: ‘Kosuth’s investigation of philosophy, literature and theatre brings the relationship between art and language to the foreground.’ 

Critic Anne Prentnieks contextualised his work of our times: ‘Kosuth’s pairings of high-minded content with common materials have a hypersaturating, destabilizing effect that eliminates hierarchies of information. It’s just like our over-connected, faux-democratic, super-digital culture today: a virtual ambush of information through which meaning is eventually, hopefully, distilled.’

Kosuth will be in Melbourne for the exhibition, and will present a free public lecture as part of Melbourne Festival on Thursday 5 October at 6:30pm, at the State Library Theatre, State Library Victoria.

Hair of the Dog, 2017, enamel paint and cottonduck; courtesy the artist and Darren Knight gallery

The same old bullshit

In Sydney it is the work of Jon Campbell at the Darren Knight Gallery that throws the spotlight on language. Same Old Bullshit is showing 7 October – 4 November, and continues Campbell's exploration of the idiosyncrasies of suburban Australia in paint and neon.

It is a curious title for the exhibition, given this spate of interest in text through exhibitions, and also Campbell’s recent run-in with the retail giant Target earlier this year, who purportedly “ripped off” one of Campbell’s Yeah series canvases, selling it as home décor at just $14 on the retailer’s website and in stores. Campbell’s artworks sell for between $4000 and $50,000.

While the case went before the Federal Court – with Campbell's lawyers citing the significant similarities in the four-letter configuration and use of negative space – the Wesfarmers company settled with Campbell in April. Counsel for Target confirmed the item was designed by a former employee, made offshore and imported to Australia. Campbell had shown the original work in Hong Kong in 2015.

Campbell’s new show adopts phrases such as Same Old Bullshit, Hair of the Dog, Pros and Cons and On for Young & Old, appropriated and reconfigured in his trademark gloss enamel and distinctive treatment of positive and negative space.

Knight explains: ‘As an artist and musician, Campbell is continually on the lookout for particular snippets of the Australian vernacular that appeal to him, filing away words and phrases, slang, signage, clichés and colloquialisms to craft into his paintings.

‘The exhibition also includes Blah Blah Blah, Win Win and Fuck Yeah, a development in Campbell’s neon work where we see the tubular lettering combined with painting. A cluster of letter paintings spelling out It’s a World Full of Lying Bastards is installed as a floor piece.’

This is Campbell’s 10th solo with Knight. Later in the year his work will also be featured in a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (MCA), paired with the group exhibition MCA Collection: Word. It surveys the use of text by artists in the gallery’s collection and encompasses everything from political posters created during the 1970s and '80s, to contemporary works in video and installation. Both open 4 December and run though 18 February.

Robert MacPherson, MAYFAIR: 2 SIGNS, 2 PAINTINGS, (HONK!! IF YOU’VE FOUND JESUS) (HONK!! IF YOU’VE SEEN ELVIS) (detail), 1992-99, Dulux weather shield acrylic on masonite, Collection Museum of Contemporary Art; image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist, photograph: Jessica Maurer

Visitors to the MCA will see work by artists Richard Bell, Robert MacPherson, an installation work by Raquel Ormella and video by Joan Ross; and posters from individual artists and collectives such as Alison Alder, Michael Callaghan, Paul Cochrane, Peter Curtis, Pam Debenham, Earthworks Poster Collective, Jan Fieldsend, Franck Gohier, Chayni Henry, Jalak Graphics, Abie Jamgala, Leonie Lane, Lucifoil Poster Collective, Jan Mackay, Chips Mackinolty, Marie McMahon, Lorna Napurrurla, Redback Graphix, Red Hand Prints, Toni Robertson and Tin Sheds Prints.

Campbell’s installation Stacks On (2010) – a series of stacked lightboxes and suspended fabric screenprinted banners – will be presented with a new work that expands the conversation started in the installation. Campbell said: ‘My new wall painting Absolutely Disgusting (2017) will stretch frieze-like around the entire gallery, measuring 2.5 x 65 metres, my largest ever.’

Bound Volume, Parliamentary Debates from 1St Parliament, 1st Session,  Volume II, 1901-2. Image credit DPS.

Text in high places: from Courts to Parliament

Using found text is a recurrent method across this genre, but a new exhibition of commissioned work at Parliament House in Canberra adds a twist to the source.

As technology has changed, so too has the delivery of information. Known as Hansard, the transcripts of parliamentary proceedings are rarely printed and bound today, instead they are predominately viewed as electronic entities.

So what do you do with 120 years of bound parliamentary recordings? Give them to artists.

‘The artists will explore both the properties of the physical source material as well as the history documented within the volumes,’ explained co-curators of the Parliamentary exhibition, Justine van Mourik and Aimee Frodsham. They commissioned nine artists to enliven, reinterpret, reuse and recycle the leather bound volumes that date back to 1901. 

The artists are Michael Eather, Simryn Gill, Katherine Hattam, Pam Langdon, Archie Moore, Elvis Richardson, Kylie Stillman, Imants Tillers and Hossein Valamanesh. You can catch Boundless Volumes from 30 November 2017 to 11 February 2018.

Agatha Gothe-Snape's Here, An Echo in Wemyss Lane, off Goulburn Street, in Surry Hills. Photo: Supplied

Text as public art

Adding to the interest in text as a contemporary medium is Sydney artist Agathe Gothe-Snape, who recently unveiled Here, an Echo (2017) a permanent public artwork in Wemyss Lane, Surry Hills, that was developed as part of a collaboration between the City of Sydney and the Biennale of Sydney legacy project. 

Her text works are currently showing in the exhibition, This Is A Voice at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney (until 28 January).

Gothe-Snape often references Lawrence Weiner in her work. Her latest piece however is very local in its source. Created in collaboration with choreographer Brooke Stamp, her research focused on an area extending from Speakers’ Corner in The Domain to Wemyss Lane, Surry Hills with a series of daily walking performances last year. The results of this period are manifested in a series of 14 words and phrases that reflect the city's past, present and future

She told media: ‘I thought what a beautiful place to have an open-ended poem that you can walk through … As [the artwork] is absorbed back into the laneway it will become grimy and weathered, and will soon be less visible. In a way, drawn back into the fabric of the city that produced it.’

Gothe-Snape is an interesting example of a new generation of artists using text, who both nod to the past but imbue their works with a strong inflection of now.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.


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