Let’s begin by stating the obvious: art is all about interpretation. Who can say with certainty what the “meaning” of any particular piece of art is? If you like a work of art, does it matter whether you are liking what the artist intended? Can you like a work of art for the “wrong” reason?
The issue is complicated enough when the art under discussion is an image; it’s compounded when the artwork is typographic. When the “meaning” is literally spelled out for you, it changes the interpretation process. I’m not referring to the wall cards that accompany a lot of museum shows [that’s another issue entirely]; I mean art like the typographic-based works assembled in Write Now, on exhibit at the Cultural Center, which are primarily composed of letters and text.
The show makes me think about the phrase people use to distill the essence of Marshall McLuhan — that the medium is the message — because by using typography as the jumping off point, you could definitely argue that a lot of what’s here is really “design,” although I’m more comfortable looking at it as “art.” Some of this may be due to my inherent affection for typography, so I’m a little biased. Still, by any standards, there’s a lot of excellent stuff to see there.
Many of the artists in the show are Chicago-based, and most of them do this kind of work. The only artist in the show with an international reputation is Jaume Plensa, whose work often incorporates letters; here, his piece — two letter-enhanced heads arrayed face-to-face — seems to incorporate themes in his more famous Crown Fountain across the street.
Not to diss Sr. Plensa, but the local talent contributed work that did a lot more for me.
Jason Pickleman more or less epitomizes the distinction — or lack thereof - between art and design. While he has made his reputation as a communications designer, he has become a fine artist of considerable accomplishment. His installation here mixes up lettered pieces in which the text reflects a specific message with others where they’re pure abstraction.
As far as I can tell, neither Karen Jackson nor Christine Tarkowski seem to have been trained in graphic design, yet each has appropriated traditional advertising/ poster designs and “retro” typography to create work with many layers of meaning.
Tarkowski has incorporated themes of religion — specifically her own atheism — into an intriguing series. Her technique — a screen printing process that channels the look of advertising placards in the Old West.
Karen Jackson also uses conventions of late 19th century advertising, where the form is graceful — you might even call it flowery — but the content is generally dark and ominous, which makes for a really provocative juxtaposition.
I also like Jason Messinger’s ceramic tiles, where the letterforms seem like abstractions, but where the titles of the works suggest deeper meaning.
Although a lot of observers scoff at visual one-liners, I’m sort of a sucker for them. Thus, I am a big fan of Matthew Hoffman’s “It feels like there is something between us.”
I am most familiar with Michael Dinges as an illustrator, but clearly he is so much more. Like Jason Pickleman, he contributed one of the finest pieces in the Brown Line Arts In Transit Program at the Fullerton station.
For this show, he channels an affection for handmade typography and decorative embellishment into “Captain’s Chair,” a plastic lawn chair decorated in the manner of 19th century scrimshaw. I’ve got to wonder about its broad pronouncement that it was “Made In France” [as a fine 19th century captain’s chair might have been] and “Found in USA” when you’ve got to assume this particular piece was almost certainly made in China.
I cannot resist pointing out the piece by Tom Torluemke [whose work knocked me out when I saw it at the fall 2011 MDW fair], which I don’t understand conceptually [the title — “Dedicated To Amber: a moment in time that changed the rhyme” — doesn’t offer much of a clue] but which speaks to me graphically. Is it about atonement? Or do you read it as “at one” [which I think of as a crossword answer — “unified” or “in agreement”?
Maps and plans usually incorporate letters and words; here Dylan Allread gives us his take on the Chicago transit map
while Ian Walker’s stylized maps provide a window into the racial history of Chicago.
The piece that had the greatest graphic impact for me — Jo Hormuth’s “Better Grammer” — also seemed the most impenetrable.
Nothing about it suggested letters or words. Nathan Mason, the show’s curator, explained in an email:
“Jo Hormuth’s piece is close to being a literal translation of a poem with floral subject matter into an abstract composition. The poem has been translated into color blocks. The installation mimics that of the words on the page. The ‘images’ seen on the wall are enlarged close up details of flowers - they are the color of a flower. The artist took the text as the departure point and transformed the poem itself into an abstract composition with no remnant of the letterforms.”
Which all goes back to interpretation. I get it now, of course, but I don’t think I ever could have figured it out on my own.