From the early stages of cognitive development, we are inundated with the notion that written words carry an unquestionable sense of authority. The consumption of written language in this way informs the rest of our lives, as social media, news, and a majority of communication take place in written form. Written words have the power to redefine history, document stories, and make (what feels like) lasting claims. From ancient manuscripts to Instagram captions, the power and beauty of written language have created innumerable documents of expression for millennia. It seems wherever humans go, words are right there with us.
For artists, these written words become creative and literal modes of expression, and whether we realize it or not, are a large component of visual art. And as artists include written words in their artistic expression, the fascination lies not only in conveying a message through the work itself but also in the skillful use of written words to infuse a unique mix of visual and literary elements.
When discussing written words in art, it is somewhat of a requirement to mention Jenny Holzer. Born in Ohio in 1950, Holzer has become a leading contemporary artist, known for her thought-provoking, social commentary-centered artwork. Holzer’s artistic practice takes place indoors and outdoors and portrays written words in unconventional ways to convey powerful messaging. The Guggenheim writes,
“Holzer is one of the most recognized conceptual artists in the United States, best known for her public works shown in international exhibitions and public spaces alike. From LED displays and large-scale projections to T-shirts and condom wrappers, she has explored the possibilities of language to control, contain, and communicate.”
In 2019, a Holzer installation titled “Thing Indescribable” was on view at the Museo Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. When I stepped into this exhibition, I was immediately pulled in. Holzer pasted an array of 8.5 x 11-inch colored printer paper covering each exhibition wall from floor to ceiling. The variation in color was remarkable, with pinks, greens, oranges, yellows, greens, and blues forming a quilt-like pattern that popped from what seemed like miles away. The pieces of paper were filled to the brim. The inviting colors created a warm atmosphere, bringing the viewer in to read the obscure language describing a scene of sexual violence.
Later on, the words from this installation transcended the exhibition walls and were projected onto the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum building itself, showcasing this powerful installation to the outside world. This is only one of several examples of Holzer’s iconic building projections.
While there are large-scale, widely-known artists exploring the expression of written language in art, words are everywhere, and many kinds of artists incorporate them extensively.
Jack Randall Hardie II
One ‘newer’ artist on the scene, Jack Randall Hardie II, explores the juxtaposition of written poetry and digital sketches in a recent Instagram series. Hardie posts original poems paired with abstract sketches that seem to respond to the written word. An excerpt from one poem titled If You Were Just You reads:
Instead of Everything else
You were just you
And it was liberating
And it was beautiful
And you were free
When then would you be
What then would you need
How then would you see the trees
And the butterflies
And the skies as the sun sets and day turns to night
Preluding the beautiful poem is a roughly written title page and a quickly sketched blue, red, and orange bullseye. Despite its simplicity, the bullseye manages to evoke a profound sense of belonging in this context. Somehow, when paired with the poem, the drawing becomes the center of the universe, and a human soul all at once. For Hardie, the words say it all, and the drawing is what the viewer makes it to be.
While art can take the main stage, as seen in Hardie’s poems, it can also have an impact from behind the scenes.
Nina Chanel Abney
One artist, Nina Chanel Abney, relies on words, as something of a complimenting accessory that emphasizes her imagery. Take one of Nina Chanel Abney’s recent murals titled “Mull It Over." Completed in collaboration with Justkids, this mural demonstrates Nina Chanel Abney’s distinctive bright and geometric style used to captivate viewers. Throughout the artwork, the powerful words “Black,” “Don’t Kill,” “Stop,” and “Love'' accentuate its message. Two Black figures accompany these words, symbolizing the profound message of this mural. Alongside the powerful imagery and messaging, its temporal context is important as well. It was created during the winter of 2020, mere months after the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. Nina Chanel Abney uses words as a literal reminder, underscoring the powerful visual elements that accompany their call to action.
Daniel Allen Cohen
Los Angeles-based artist Daniel Allen Cohen takes written words in art to another level in his recent series THIS IS ADDICTIVE. The multi-part work adds a variety of addictive substances in what eventually appears to be a periodic table of elements.
At the center of this series is the strategic use of words, visual aesthetics, and science. Cohen’s use of the written English language, as one Forbes article states “walks a fine line between the abstract and the ironically brutal, displaying our desires when left to our own devices. Every piece is a thinker, packed with hilarious text, sometimes called the drug’s “nutritional facts,” that play on the ludicrous nature of the material item that the onlooker puts on a pedestal. The more you look, the more you see.” Cohen used two things humans find alluring, words and addictive substances, and placed them in an irresistible context.
Another artist, Glenn Ligon, has perfected the powerful use of words and phrases in art. In addition to a variety of works, including photography, painting, and sculpture, some of Ligon’s most captivating works are the LED word installations exploring cultural and social identity via a wide array of sources.
Artnet News states that Ligon has borrowed “text from figures ranging from James Baldwin, Richard Pryor, and Ralph Ellison to Gertrude Stein and Jesse Jackson on the subject of being black, as well as words from his friends, his teachers, and his therapist.”
Ligon’s Double America is an LED light installation that commands attention with its luminous display of the word “America.” A mirrored ‘America' sits directly beneath it, creating a strategic juxtaposition. Ligon’s work calls to Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” where everything in the story appears to be happening at the same time. Ligon states in an interview with Public Delivery, “This is pretty much what is happening in the world right now, in America. For a country that operates as a liberal society, the division between economic, political, and social lines is quite profound.” The beauty of this work lies in its complexity of simplicity. It is complex beneath the surface, but simple at first glance.
If unconvinced that words are powerful elements in visual art, think again. Written language and visual aesthetics generate a rich collaboration that conveys a unique and captivating power. Words, whether subtly included as a background element or boldly displayed with LED lights, amplify the message of work in a literal sense that other art forms do not accomplish in the same way.
While it feels somewhat impossible to find the words to sum up a piece about words, I’ll leave you with this: Words, when incorporated in artwork, carry innumerable cultural and social connotations that amplify messages of visual components in artworks. So, when artists use them, we need to listen.
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