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Arts & CultureText Me! An invitational exhibition of letters and words in visual art

Text Me! An invitational exhibition of letters and words in visual art

by Chandler Swain

September Feature at General Fine Craft Art and Design

63 Mill St, Almonte

( Interestingly the former home of The Almonte Gazette!)

Tintern Abbey, book

Art in all media related to the concept of using text in visual art

Opening reception: Sept. 6, 7-9

From the illuminated texts of the Middle Ages in Europe to graffiti tagging in 21 century streets, from only the privileged few who were literate to writing for all to see, Words and Letters have great power. How are contemporary visual artists reckoning with this element in their work?  General Fine Craft in Almonte has assembled over 25 artists who use text in their art in imaginative, challenging and unique ways.

We are inundated with words every day in emails, newspapers, books, tattoos, greeting cards, street signs and advertising. Words are ubiquitous. Some become iconic. Think of “SOS” or “I heart NY” or seeing your name in print: in the right or wrong place. It’s all information. Communication.

If visual art is a form of communication why use words or letters? How can their use in a piece of art elevate and not reduce it to something banal? This was my question when I looked around at what our makers were doing in the gallery and beyond. What makes the work relevant and interesting?

My fascination with this particular element in art likely started with seeing Joyce Weiland’s magnificent True Patriot Love show at Av Issac’s Gallery in Toronto when I was a student at the Ontario College of Art in the 70’s. One piece in the show called Reason Over Passion is a quilt with 3 dimensional stuffed letters attached to it. Weiland’s use of mixed media and text was for me revelatory and inspired me to pursue an artistic practice in the material arts…and it happens using text on my own ceramic art.

Another famous and inspiring text based piece is Robert Indiana’s huge 1970 steel sculpture of the letters L and O sitting on a V and E. The letters are painted bright red with an intense blue interior between the front and back of the sculpture. In your mind’s eye you will be able to conjure up a clear image of one version, which sits beside a New York City sidewalk and is over 15′ tall. The details of this iconic artwork are lodged in our memories as are the details of the Mona Lisa`s face or Tom Thompson’s Jack Pine…but it’s a word. If I simply Type LOVE here, it doesn`t have the same force as the word transformed by a visual artist into an object that stood for the time: a time when the groundswell to end the war in Vietnam was huge and John Lennon was in trouble with US government for singing Give Peace a Chance.

You could argue that words should be unnecessary in what we deem a piece of fine art or craft. The communication should be done with paint, clay, bronze, fibre, glass, colour or imagery….like for example, Picasso’s Guernica:  the huge painting he did to address the horrors of the Spanish civil war. No words are necessary. We understand fully the dynamics and subject of this masterpiece of painting. I have no answer to the question of why text in visual art is OK…..or not…I am merely curious and attracted to text based art, especially beautiful, complex graffiti which seems almost an antidote to our current obsession of reducing communication using the typed word on a screen to 140 characters. Marks on electronic screen lack the emotion and nuance of a hand written letter, which is no longer a compulsory subject taught in school.

After mulling this subject over in preparation of our exhibition, I went to see Sakahan: Aboriginal Art from around the world at The National Gallery. A number of powerful works were text based and only increased my fascination with this dichotomy: text and art. Much of the work in Sakahan is mixed media based as well. The show, just over, was truly an inspiration and reenergized me for all that we was necessary to mount our September feature at General Fine Craft Art and Design. We are showing work in bronze, fibre, paint, clay and all manner of mixed media. We invite you to come and see what the artists in our exhibition have to offer this genre during the month of September.




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