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The Verbal Visual

Jun 30 - Aug 12, 2023

Sophie Calle

The Shadow (La Filature), 1981

Installation in 22 parts

75 x 115 in. (190.5 x 292.1 cm.)

Word-based art, or what one might term the “verbal visual,” is a common practice in the art world today. While ground-breaking and controversial in the 1950s and 60s, today it is a common practice. Chryssa and Robert Indiana are two of the pioneers of this tradition, with subsequent artists like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince taking up the mantle. However the “verbal visual” has two ge-nealogical threads, one indirect and one more direct. The first has to do with the “verbal visual’s” artistic lineage, which stems out of the birth of modernism and its coeval depiction of common subjects, typified by Dutch paintings of the working class (e.g., Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Peasant Wedding, 1567) and impressionism’s anti-classist mentality (e.g., Edgar Degas' The Laundry Workers (The Ironing), ca. 1874-76). This opened the door for “the common” to be depicted in high art settings, paving the way for future movements like Dadaism and Pop Art. For instance, Kurt Schwitters’ Merz series (1923), constructed out of letterpress and lithograph portfolios, uses found words in collage form, acting as a clear milestone for the “verbal visual”. While this aesthetic genealogy is critical to foreground the “verbal visual,” this exhibition focuses on the other genealogical thread—that of the linguistic heritage of the alphabet and numeral sys-tems. The genealogy of the English alphabet begins with Egyptian hieroglyphics, and continues through the Phoenician, Greek, and Roman alphabets, which would later evolve to become the Romantic languages and English. This exhibition takes this second genealogical thread as a focal point, so as to contextualize the first.

Since the “verbal visual” is rooted in an aesthetic preoccupation of the common (especially com-mon modes of communication), literacy first had to become widespread for it to take foot. It is thus fitting that mass advertising is a key influence on the contemporary artists featured in this exhibition. If it were not for the process of the simplification of the writing system and, much later, widespread literacy vis-à-vis the Guttenberg Press, mass advertising would have neither been possible nor necessary. Barring very few historical exceptions, widespread literacy is a modern concept. While revolutionary at its time, by present-day standards, the Egyptian writing systems are extremely impractical—notably, less than one percent of Egypt’s population could read Hieroglyphics. While the Egyptians used stencils (a rudimentary form of printing), the writing systems themselves were excessively elaborate, both aesthetically and due of the sheer number of characters in the writing system, making common literacy next to impossible. As the re-sult of numerous cultural exchanges in ancient times, the more practical writing system of the English al-phabet transpired. And it is this system which acts as the basis of for the artworks produced by those con-temporary artists featured in this exhibition. Thus, in order to appreciate and fully understand the “verbal visual” as it is freely communicated today, one needs to also understand its linguistic lineage and historical context.

In tracing the chronology of written language, this exhibition begins with Ancient Egyptian Art that employs hieroglyphics. In the first room, viewers will find antiquities—historical artefacts, written texts, and military memorabilia—from Ancient Egypt, Canaan, Greece, and Rome. This room presents both works that employ the written language but also artifacts that represent the cultures and cultural exchanges that contributed to the genealogy of the “verbal visual”— above all else, this includes war artifacts, but also idols and artworks. War features prominently as the site of cultural exchange, as this exhibition not only chronicles the evolution of language but also the means of this evolution, and war was one of the most critical means of linguistic exchange. Indeed, the evolution of language is deeply tied to empire, trade, technology, and war. Much like our folk conception of Darwin’s theory of evolution can be reduced to the perhaps oversimplified apothegm “survival of the fittest”, so too did war and the vanquishers of battle illic-it command over the adoption of dominant language systems. In turn, the history of ancient languages indexes the annals of power and domination. The idiom goes that the victors of history are those who write history but, wittingly or not, these victors also dictate how—and in what language—that history is written. Hence, viewers will see on display not only artifacts and artworks with written characters but also tools of combat, weaponry, and trade.

The hieroglyphic system of the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC) began with 800 characters but would expand to well over 4000 characters by the Late Period (525-332 BCE). The common conception of hiero-glyphics often likens this ancient writing system to pictography, i.e. a oneto-one correlation between an illustrated character (signifier) and an idea (signified). However, hieroglyphics as such is a phonetic writing system, much like the English alphabet. With the exception of determinatives—which function as an icon/pictograph—hieroglyphics functions phonetically. Viewers will see this evolution indexed by antiqui-ties that include hieroglyphics, such as tablets that proffer spiritual formulas, celebrate military victories, and serve religious purposes (e.g., prayer). For example, from circa 1069 – 664 BC is a heart scarab, a puta-tively “magical” amulet that was thought to accompany the deceased into the afterlife; the translated text, which is available for viewers on display, suggests that the owner of the amulet was a Semitic for-eigner from the Levant region. On display from the Old Kingdom, we see an Egyptian limestone relief (ca. 664 – 525 BC) that shows a precession of gift-bearers. Viewers will also notice two stone scarab beetle jewelry pieces—one of which includes the original gold and the other featuring a decorative bottom—from the Hyksos period (viz. the 15th dynasty of ethnically Semitic Egyptian pharaohs). The Hyksos were a Semitic civilization that occupied the heart of the Northern Delta between 1650BC to 1550 BC who adopted hiero-glyphics from the Egyptians. Also on display is a khopesh—a bronze sword design adopted from the Hyk-sos, bronze being a technology introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos.

Once the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt to modern-day Israel, their own technology would be used against them—chiefly, the horse-and-chariot. The Canaanites, partial descendants of the Hyksos, would live under Egyptian rule for 500 years. It was under this occupation that the Canaanites created the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, which eventually evolved into the Phoenician alphabet and, consequently, Latin, Greek, the Romantic languages, and English. In tracing this development, we begin with Canaanite axe heads, war tools casted from bronze, and Canaanite jewelry, including a bronze pendant of Baal, the God of life and fertility. We then see featured an upright, bell-shaped Greek bronze Corinthian helmet (ca. 650-600 BC) with almond-slit eyes holes; this antiquity was retrieved from the Mediterranean Sea and thus fea-tures marine incrustations, giving the helmet a unique, filmy patina. From 1st century AD Rome we have a marble statue of Aphrodite, arched in a seductive pose and featuring rolls at the waist; notably, this is dis-tinct from preceeding depictions, which featured Aphrodite in an erect, upright standing pose.

As the motif of the “verbal visual” functions in contemporary art, it has a uniquely Western point of origin. And, as far as this exhibition is concerned, the featured artists are anchored to the United States and its mid-20th century postmodern sensibility. But this sensibility is not dispirate from the historical de-velopment that created the conditions for the “verbal visual” to emerge. When the United States separat-ed from England in 1776, the English alphabet was retained but, as American aesthetics and visual culture evolved, the writing system was artistically adapted to proffer a modern advertising culture, with figures like Ed Bernays taking this to new heights in the 20th century. Advertising would inspire artist like Chryssa, Jenny Holzer, Robert Indiana, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince. Indeed, common literacy was a byprod-uct of mass communication, though these two eventually came to be intertwined. As inaugurated by Du-champ and Schwitters’ post-Dada ready-mades and collages, “the common” became high art and the “verbal visual” a key component of it. Subsequent artists like Chryssa and Robert Indiana would notice in-dexical connections in typography that their predecessors did not. One such example is utilizing characters as pictographs: for instance, Chryssa’s neon works often reimagine the “M” or “W” as a fowl figure.

Simply put, the pictograph (which is used in Egyptian hieroglyphics) is a pictorial symbol for a word or phrase. The pictograph as a historical practice is the result of thousands of years of simplification, re-sulting in pictorial symbols being abstracted beyond the recognition of their original form. Chryssa inverts the practice of pictography, appropriating the spirit of this tradition by using letters indexically, such that that the letters become pictorial symbols themselves. For example, in Chryssa’s 1960s work, she utilizes the letter “S” to depict Clytemnestra (from the story of Troy) during her murder as a pair of lips screaming in agony. While, contra the English alphabet, Hindu-Arabic numerals did not derive from pictographs, Rob-ert Indiana treats them as such. This is evident in Indiana’s One (1962), where Indiana utilizes the “1” to depict a self-portrait of a lonely, standing single figure. As knowledge is adapted and it passes from generation to generation, the tradition of the “Verbal Visual” is likewise adapted, with this artistic tradition—and its coeval genealogies— passed down to younger generations. This exhibition allows for viewers to trace this evolution in real time.