Playing with art & language: some personal memories

Peter Hill chooses here to examine a personal interest in the marriage of text and image in contemporary art. From the inextricable links between text and image made through magazine and advertising media to the mix of graffiti and gravitas achieved through the works of Jean Michael Basquiat, this article covers a wide range of avenues and artists paramount to this investigation. Other key figures mentioned include Joseph Kosuth, John A. Walker, Ed Ruscha, Peter Burgess, Bruce McLean, Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Gordon, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Thyrza Nicholas Goodeve.

Barbara Kruger above: Untitled 2006 vinyl adhesive lettering
Peter Burgess Art & Letters Part 1 vs. 2 1985-2003, ultrachrome inks on canvas, 27 panels each 22.5 cms x 22.5 cm.

In the early 1980s I walked into what was then the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street and saw that the art centre shop was full of giant prints by London-based Scot Bruce McLean. These prints were a wild, neo-expressionist mix of art and text. It was difficult to tell what was a mark representing an everyday object and what was a word representing that object. This was visual poetry, but it was also real poetry, for out of the pizza explosion of colour and line the eye discerned the absurdly beautiful phrase, 'A teacup, a jug, a piece of floor, a certain smile, a new front door.' The marks representing the objects were almost indistinguishable from the words that signified them. And that's about as close to semiotics as I care to go, lest the magic and mystery of the convergence of text and image be analysed out of existence. These prints were remarkably cheap, the equivalent of $15 each. I suddenly had the insane desire to buy as many of them as were left and so – even though I was living on social security in the roughest days of Thatcher's Britain – I went along to my bank manager, cap in trembling hand and arranged an overdraft of $300. I still have all twenty of the prints and one day plan to build an entire wall of them and sit in front of it and muse about the strange triangle formed when image, text, and idea go out to play.

A few years before this, when I was studying painting just outside London, my weekly trawl of the commercial galleries and art spaces took me to Angela Flowers where I came across the equally exciting work of Ian Breakwell. He was showing the latest section of his on-going 'Diary' project in which he documented Рthrough overlaid photography and text Рwhat he called The Walking Man Diary. Over a decade before Sophie Calle followed a stranger to Venice, Breakwell stalked this down-and-out, or derelict, through the streets of Smithfield Market, setting a mantra-like series of observations to the grainy, black and white images of this lonely d̩rive.

I've always felt that art movements are at their most exciting before they are named, and certainly well before they become institutionalised and academicised. When John A. Walker's book Art Since Pop came out in the mid-seventies its title was almost an illustration of that sentiment. It defined itself by what it was not, partly because what it was had only hazily been baptised into the canon. It was in here that I came across terms such as 'conceptual art'; 'minimalism'; and 'performance art' for the first time – or at least it was the first time that anyone had cogently described the territory that these terms would later describe. And so I read about Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs with his now famous juxtaposition of a real chair with the photograph of that chair, and an accompanying dictionary definition of the word 'chair'. It took a while for me to realise that in the work of both Breakwell and Kosuth, not only was text being added to the visual art equation, but so were new forms of exhibition design (used in the service of the artist) and graphic design. These artworks did not so much resemble paintings on a wall as weirdly hypnotic museum information panels.

Since those days I have always had a soft spot for artists who combine image and text – although not to the exclusion of all else. Most of what excites me in the art world does not involve such a marriage. But I do have an ever-expanding box file at the back of my brain to which I add examples as I come across them.

In the last couple of years I have spent time discussing their work with two masters of the craft. Ed Ruscha and Peter Burgess. The latter favours the anagram, while the former has made the palindrome his own. When Ruscha represented America at the 2005 Venice Biennale it was the culmination of several years of intense work and an equally intense, and global, exhibition schedule that included a large survey show at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. His range of work is broad and not all of it involves text. But I kept being drawn back to the palindrome paintings, most of which were painted across icy blue mountain peaks and frosty skies. 'LION IN OIL'; 'SOLO GIGOLOS'; 'TULSA SLUT' and 'LEVEL AS A LEVEL' I guess there's a computer program that will generate this sort of thing endlessly. Certainly when I was introduced to Peter Burgess's anagrams such as 'I Paint Modern' (Piet Mondrian), and 'Ramshackle Blanc' (Charles Blackman) at Connie Dietschold's marvellous Multiple Box gallery in Sydney I went home and found an anagram site on the web.

But finding clever, in-house, anagrams isn't even half of the game with Burgess. How they are presented, either as prints or canvases, is crucial to their success. This is true, of course, of all successful artists working in this field.

From Bruce McLean's wild silkscreen prints it is but a short step to graffiti, or the currently fashionable stencil art, decorating back streets and alleyways from Melbourne to Manchester. When he took the street into the white cube of the gallery Jean Michael Basquiat probably achieved the perfect mix of graffiti and gravitas, taking the big issues of sex and death and burying them in a cartoon landscape. Eventually his tag – SAMO, shorthand for 'same old shit' – became his epitaph as the heroin took hold and the dealers (of both persuasions) circled like vultures. But just as Burgess's work is about far more than anagrams, Basquiat's is about more than graffiti – they are merely starting points.

It wasn't long before the hand of the artist disappeared almost completely from the work of art. Lawrence Weiner employed sign-writers to construct exquisite texts, often with anti-nuclear messages, in large blue letters on museum walls. You can see one as you descend the escalators at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Curator Tony Bond tells how this was one of the hardest purchases to get past his acquisitions committee. On the one hand they looked at the comparatively high price of the artwork; on the other they saw the very reasonable bill for a day's work from the local sign writer. And they wondered. But that is one of the main functions of art, to make us wonder. As with the time Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon had the words 'Trust Me' tattooed on his arm. Who could trust someone who did that?

Over the past century one of the main outlets for the marriage of text and image has been the magazine and, by extension, the billboard poster. Everything from hard news to savvy advertising gets locked into the layout editor's grid and we hardly notice the joins. It was pretty much inevitable that at some point this would be subverted by contemporary visual artists. Two Amercian artists (working independently of each other), Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, did it better and sooner than most. Not surprisingly both emerged from the worlds of publishing, advertising, and the media.

In 2006 Barbara Kruger had a major exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne building on a personal aesthetic, honed over decades which are by turn universal, subversive, and seductive. As recognition of these skills Kruger was given a 'Life-time Achievement' award at the 2005 Venice Biennale.
Kruger was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1945. She trained in New York but now divides her time between that city and its west coast rival, Los Angeles. Having served her time assembling text and image for various Conde Nast publications such as Mademoiselle, Kruger began her career as we now know it in 1978 by creating two art projects called Hospital and Picture/Reading. In the latter, fragments of narrative were superimposed over exterior shots of buildings which told the story of what might be going on inside those buildings. Poetry, aesthetics, art and the tools of advertising were beginning to coalesce. As Thyrza Nicholas Goodeve (and there's a few good anagrams in that mouthful) wrote in Art in America in 1997, 'Barbara Kruger is the poet laureate of the age of spectacle. Since her signature red, black and white graphics first appeared in the early 1980s, they have become a familiar presence in the world of contemporary art as well as on the street. Direct address is her tool, and her target is 'you' – the collective subject created and sustained by mass media. Cutting through the clutter of our image-saturated world, Kruger's work grabs us by the collar and booms, 'Don't be a jerk'. (This is the Krugerian graphic emblazoned on the coffee mug from which I drank while conducting this interview)'

The beauty of her work is the distance it has travelled since those early days. The constant danger she faces is in being subverted by the very powers she seeks to subvert. It's not just the tacky merchandising (appropriately brought to you by the artist whose best-known catch cry is 'I Shop Therefore I Am'), but the totally unethical cannibalism of Madison Avenue, Charles Saatchi, and the dangerous no-person's land between ad-land and the world of contemporary art.

In most of her interviews she mentions at some point the huge costs in creating such installations. Other artists seem to get bankrolled by wealthy dealers or corporate funds. She says that she has to raise most of the cash herself. As you walked around ACCA and became immersed in the various spaces that Kruger has created you realise that this is not work made on the cheap. There is hardware, there is software and there are production and editing costs akin to that of a small film company.

The major piece Twelve comes to Melbourne via Glasgow and New York. This about as global a triangle as you could plot across the surface of our planet. Yet it is very local in content. Twelve short scenes are enacted, by paid actors, around a table at mealtime. The themes discussed deal with global politics and all kinds of prejudice – domestic violence, consumerism, objectification, dehumanisation. These enter our consciousness through text scrolling along the bottom of our screens. When this work was shown at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York, David Frankel wrote in Artforum, 'Some slightly stiff acting bears out our sense of these people as awkward, injured containers for the forces of their day. Add a tense pace, crackling language, occasional sonic devices to surprise, and we still haven't reached the real coup, the staging: Entering the space, we are invisible parties to a conversation among larger-than-life actors, who talk through us to each other as if we weren't there.'

So what separates Kruger's current work from a very elite form of filmmaking, one in which a relatively small number of people can watch it (free of charge, but publicly funded) as opposed to hundreds or thousands shelling out fifteen bucks at the local multiplex? It's more to do with the viewpoint of the director, and in Kruger's case the director is an artist who is constantly slipping between mediums.

'You can just see how certain directors use the conventions of cinema to push your buttons,' she said in Glasgow. 'But then there are also all these sentiments that you see coming out you know, in terms of the way we view public events after 9/11. I remember watching TV after Princess Diana died& that was when the pornography of sentiment became so clear and then you saw it leaking out into 9/11 messages. There's a real sense of loss and terror in the world and then there's all this sentiment around.'

In addition to the major piece, Twelve, three new works had their world premiere at ACCA. Either you need to spend a long time in the gallery to consume all of this, or – like me – you make several visits and allow the totality of the exhibition to grow on you like a series of skins. And as you walk round, remember Shakespeare's words, as appropriated by Ed Ruscha around the cupola of the Miami-Dade Public Library, 'WORDS WITHOUT THOUGHTS NEVER TO HEAVEN GO'.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.