This essay was produced as part of the inaugural Stelo + Variable West Arts Writing Residency, funded with generous support from Stelo.
I first came across writer and artist Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself (2007) in 2017, entirely by happenstance. Wandering the San Francisco Marina District without explicit aim, a friend and I found ourselves following an advertisement for a multi-gallery installation of four projects from Calle’s oeuvre. Hosted at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, the presentation of Take Care of Yourself encompassed the entire warehouse space. Confronting the forceful resonance personal experience can have in creative expression, the project executed by Calle is fairly simple, and in her own words she writes:
I received an email telling me it was over.
I didn’t know how to respond.
It was almost as if it hadn’t been meant for me.
It ended with the words, “Take care of yourself.”
And so I did.
I asked 107 women (including two made from wood and one with feathers),
chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret this letter.
To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it.
Dissect it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me.
Answer for me.
It was a way of taking the time to break up.
A way of taking care of myself.
The presentation of her findings was equally uncomplicated: one long table spanned the entirety of the gallery, covered with framed portraits of Calle’s subjects. In tandem with the visual image, also encased, were the interpretations these individuals had prepared. All four walls of the viewing room were similarly lined with image, textual analysis and filmed performance, weaving the narratives of these strangers to one another and to Calle. The communal power felt in experiencing the space was palpable, the wave of camaraderie and shared anguish difficult to overlook. My own response to the work was so visceral, leaving such an emphatic mark, that I have found myself returning to this piece time and again. This exploration of human emotion performed, dissected, and transformed the overwhelmingly mundane notion of a relationship splintering.
Born of the artists’ and participants’ lived experiences, Take Care of Yourself fields a study into a specific subset of visual art that overtly harnesses truth, direct action, and raw emotion through the semiotic. Diverging from the bravado of the (mostly white, male-dominated) Conceptual art of the 1960s, akin to Ray Johnson’s Correspondence Art also of the same era, works such as this eschew the formalities and rigidity of what we have come to expect from the conceptual.
Thinking of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) or Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) [Definition] (1966–68), or perhaps John Baldesarri’s What is Painting or Tips For Artists Who Want to Sell (1966–68), the mere addition of visible language in these pieces does little to contribute depth to either the text presented or the proposed creative sentiment. Tips For Artists Who Want to Sell is straightforward in its delivery—the title of the work in bold, capital black letters headlines the top of a yellow painted canvas. Below, three bullet-pointed guidelines offer tips on how any artist could (in theory) actively engage (a specific subset of) audience and sell work, noting that fair colors and jovial subject matter might be all that is needed. The expected emphasis on carefree themes such as flower paintings, nudes, and abstracts purely for monetary gains ignores any other motivation for creative expression. Similarly, the formula is devoid of any alternative variation in medium or artist. Although text is not overtly mentioned as tools to aid artists, its practicality fits Baldessari’s criteria for clear and morbid-free themes. Baldessari here puckishly presents commercial gain as the sole impetus for art-making which, in other words, implies work devoid of all individuality. In the case of both Baldessari and Kosuth, their technical reliance on the reproduction of others’ writing and, at times, their independence from the production of the work itself, further estranges them from the intimacy I’m highlighting. The emphasis here on ideas over visual form is significant, yet the textual regurgitation effectively pigeonholes the work, relying solely on a superficial abstraction.
Considering this one-dimensionality, I question the fundamental value of such works within a larger art historical canon. If the purpose is simply to disseminate information, we can then challenge when the information begins to lose its relevance and/or validity. In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes writes, “Like those productions of contemporary art which exhaust their necessity as soon as they have been seen (since to see them is immediately to understand to what destructive purpose they are exhibited: they no longer contain any contemplative or delectative duration), such an introduction can only repeat itself–without every introducing anything.” In the previous examples, the reliance on a pure definition of “art,” “chair,” etc., severely limits their reach and typifies these text-inclusive works as ready-made forms and cheeky “manuals.” I can appreciate the brazen humor of taking apart the perception of what art can be, and how it comes to be understood and defined; yet, it does little in terms of evoking an innate and moving effect. I reference them here to set a foundation for the counterparts that followed, which decisively embed text for its visual and affecting power. Language has always been emotionally charged, sparking from a desire for connectivity. What boundaries are crossed and connections forged when the epistolary form converges with art history? Calle’s diaristic impulse in Take Care of Yourself, and in much of her autobiographical work, unlocks a deeply sentimental core of art criticism. Examining such universal conditions of existing, belonging, and discovery unearths a collective narrative that Calle presents through a candid visual format. What might arise when the connective threads between input and output, between viewer and maker, directly focus toward a specific intent?
Two Party Politics (2021) is a large-scale textile banner by Portland-based artist and radical educator Vo Vo. Hosted at Fuller Rosen Gallery in 2021 as a part of their exhibition Things that have to do with fire, the collective suite of artworks aimed to address the social, racial and environmental upheaval during the summer of 2020. Using embroidery, woven fibers and wool on cotton canvas, this work bluntly decries contemporary social politics and capitalism. With an additional allusion to the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent disastrous handling by those in positions of power, embroidered quotes ring fiercely: “the time for fence sitting is over,” “the economy will be perfect when all our workers have died.” and “still a cop still a warmonger.” The text is interspersed with bright inclusions of yarn and textile bits, embroidered natural imagery and other details that grow to fill in the canvas. However, it is the text that demonstrates the power of words by invoking a direct plane of impact. Prose such as “END THE AGE OF WALLS” is a direct reference to the hateful border wall endorsed by the Trump administration on the Mexican American border, and forcibly raises awareness surrounding the blatant bigotry towards immigration. In turn, “USA = no. 1!” can only be interpreted as a farce, taken in conjunction with the other phrases noting that the USA is number one only in its unabashed negative qualities: “Imperialism… Human rights violations…. Late, putrid crapitalism.” Presenting these knit words within the context of a public gallery holds space for a sharp emotional release. The work calls on a communal desire for change, a rally to unite against a dominant colonial culture.
The works of Vo Vo toggle a multi-disciplinary field; the pieces breathe as weavings, narrative, collage and as script. Whereas a purely linear approach to the implementation of text into a visual art work can fall flat, reduced to its defining limits, I propose the function of text as pure catharsis. What might happen if artists were to also work fervently against the established structures of definition? To pull on long-standing traditions within the lexicon of text-based art history with a turn towards the internal, noting the intricacies of art-making and channeling that tension, using text not as a replacement for traditional materials but as an extension of the same impulse. North American artist Adam Pendleton utilizes language in a similarly veiled manner, partially blurring the definitive markings of words and sentences in his canvases. In his Untitled (WE ARE NOT) (2019), Pendleton melds abstract gestures and strokes with layers of thick black paint, geometric shapes, and the spray-painted repetitive mantra “We Are Not.” The monumental painting is substantial both in stature and in message, his imagery investigating language as a vehicle for the recontextualization of a personal history. The “We” in question here is a rooted cultural reference, the artist weaves a larger societal narrative that reveals more through the negation of what “We” are not (a duality here, as the “We” also serves to address the intended audience of the work) as opposed to an attempt to define his existence to the public. Pendleton creates directly in contrast to formal definition, a stark and poignant foil to Kosuth and Baldesarri.
In their isolated variations, each interpretation of language I’ve given holds influence, inviting viewer to become voyeur. These artists, within their respective crafts, intentionally breach a layer of privacy as a bridge toward telling stories, celebrating culture and forging community. hanky, a group show recently on view at lowell in Portland, OR, showcased the works of fifty-one artists. Each of the pieces presented utilizes unique silk habotai hankies, with each artist presenting their own conceptual interpretation of both the project and material. hanky provides an accessible platform for the melding of the visual and linguistic outlined above, in a composition that can exist to be considered both as a whole and by its singular parts. Of the artists featured, a significant portion of the pieces employ text in their final compositions—each seeking to describe, implore, imagine. Jake Sigl’s To appear like a magician’s dove (2022) and Makaveli Gresham’s whether they did it or not (2022) are only two examples of wonder and proclamation.
Done in permanent marker, the pointillist words in To appear like a magician’s dove appear like tiny stars, forming two half circles on either side of the fabric square. Space seems intentionally bare, creating an almost enclosed circular loop of text. With this choice Sigl toggles a playfulness between his medium and chosen remark. Challenging a notion of permanence, Sigl questions whether they are the dove, the rabbit, both, or neither. Where might the context of this phrase fit within the larger understanding of the show? This simple verse demurely addresses a more comprehensive understanding of existence and belonging, as it lives interspersed amid the rich surroundings of its counterparts. The collective gridded hankies here can also be interpreted as individual glyphs in a larger narrative of freeform experimentation. The collaborative structure appears on both micro and macro scales.
Gresham’s whether they did it or not is an unequivocal address to both gallery audience and a wider power structure, similar to Vo Vo’s Two Party Politics. Made with cyanotype printing and ink, the saturated blue of the background reveals an image the artist captured and subsequently transferred onto the silk of the hanky. Printed in the right hand corner of the work, the emotive scene was captured outside of a community garden the artist came across of various objects—discarded materials, destroyed clothing, yard debris—stacked atop each other in disarray. Slightly veiled as a result of the transfer process, the image calls for a more profound introspection considering the contrast between the discarded debris and its location at a site meant to inspire communal care. The remaining background reveals an even fainter image resembling a wooded area or perhaps extensive, tangled brambles. The bold text in the left hand corner may at first appear discordant with its background, yet I believe its addition further reinforces the desire to connect with its audience on a more meaningful level. The statement “free the homies whether they did it or not” implies a reaction to freedom being hindered. However, the artist here asks the audience to think beyond the arbitrary confines of right and wrong and dispute the obstruction of freedom itself. Within our immediate socio-political context we can make a further correlation with the flawed power dynamics of mass incarceration that disproportionately and wrongfully incarcerates marginalized communities. The metaphorical action committed in this narrative becomes irrelevant, and the text stands as an open call for justice within the larger framework of the piece. Further solidified with the knowledge of the cyanotype image’s origin, the significance of the phrase could stand to imply that communal sites, such as a community garden, and the community they inspire is what will keep its members safe.
As an arts writer, this bilateral melding of genres speaks to my affinities for both art and literary appreciation. What is art if not an attempt to communicate? This intentional choice of expression through language grants a crossover of private and public spaces and allows for a broader dissemination of messages. To speak an inner dialogue into existence with self-referential words has the power of revealing the symbiotic ways that language saturates our lived experience, and, as a result, in our created visual/experiential world. This invitation into intimacy relishes in forming a communal connection with its subject, delving into a broad emotional response until it becomes tangible, or at the very least readily available, to the public as a whole. In this format, the embedded text “is a provocation to thought; and the thinking it encourages is not that of a system or science. It is open-ended, based on wonder and wondering.” Artists and viewers alike receive an opportunity to expand beyond the purely visual, to burrow farther into a reciprocal, if atypical, mode of creative expression free of interruption or external interjection—a way to take care of ourselves and each other.
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