Monday, April 15, 2024

The Cornell’s latest exhibition gets the word out

When we think of text-driven visual art, if we think of it at all, we usually picture the spacious, spartan word paintings of Ed Rauscha, or perhaps the bold, single-word typographic pleas of Robert Indiana—like his endlessly reproduced “LOVE” and “HOPE.” Maybe the tech-savvy among us think of Jenny Holzer, the contemporary artist who fills scrolling LED panels with cryptic or provocative statements.

These are perhaps the bluntest, most obvious examples of text art, but artists are incorporating words in their compositions in subtler and more surprising ways, largely divorced from their splashy, Pop Art forbears. Delray Center for the Arts is currently exhibiting 11 of these wordy artists in “Language Art,” another progressive and fascinating survey from curator Melanie Johanson.

The exhibition, which takes over the bulk of the first and second floors of the museum, does have a couple of inevitable contributions from the aforementioned Indiana, but it’s the more obscure artists that steal the show in unexpected ways. The text in Reed Dixon’s “Postcard” series is mostly in service of its eponymous travel card; each postcard exudes bygone Florida kitsch, with palm trees, Mickey Mouse cheesecake models, Cuban planes and conquistadors selling a hilariously outdated idea of paradise. Meanwhile, vintage comic books, cult movies, advertising brands and slogans, and esoteric language share the alternately bright and foreboding canvases of Johnny Romeo, a superhero’s name if ever one existed. His collages come across as a paranoiac’s fever dream, where skulls, motorcycles and gun-toting babes appear alongside owls, partially scrubbed-out words and corporate symbols—a quest for identity in a world caught between mainstream and underground, highbrow and lowbrow.

Taking a more minimalist and site-specific approach, Meryl Pataky’s “You” is a wall-mounted assemblage of seemingly messy, squiggly steel that only spells out the titular word in the shadow it casts below. Created from hand-cut paper and an X-ACTO knife, Annie Vought’s “I took the girl to walk in circles” is a delicate transcription from her personal trove of hand-written letters—a painstaking immortalization of the endangered and romantic art of letter-writing, with even its ink splotches retained in the final work.

In the “best use of recycled materials” category is Michael Dinges’ “Dead Laptop” series—where decommissioned Macbooks become playgrounds for inspired engravings of fauna, Ouija boards, new age symbology, encyclopedic imagery and more, all of it working around the Apple logo in the center of each canvas. These pieces shake up Apple’s elegant uniformity, adding individuality to a sleekly antiseptic brand while inspirationally turning a functional object into a purely aesthetic one.

But my favorite works in “Language Art” are those by Kathy Halper, who creates embroidered linens inspired by Facebook’s photos, its lexicon, and its atmosphere of spoiled narcissism. She started with actual quotes from her daughter’s Facebook wall, pearls of wisdom such as “It is wrong that im more embaressed about the karoke than the toplessness?” (sic) and “Note to self … there is such a thing as having too many birthday shots.”

The images are the kind you’d expect to attend such statements—usually young women acting badly. In addition to serving as a withering critique of social media and its most asinine adherents, Halper’s work derives its melancholy-tinged humor from the incongruity of re-creating a permanent and time-consuming artwork from fleeting gasps of regrettable, likely-to-be-deleted hedonism. For many young people, this is their form of artistic expression. Yikes!

“Language Arts” runs thrugh March 8 at the Cornell Museum at Delray Center for the Arts, 51 N. Swinton Ave. Admission is $5. Call 561/243-7922 or visitdelraycenterforthearts.org.

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