Visual Poetics: Art and the Word

Article excerpt

Miami Art Museum, April 25 - November 16, 2003

There is an interesting poetic speculation that "language is a 'cumulative project' of the species, comparable to animal husbandry." (1) If you want to witness the sharp visual turn this human-language-project has taken in modernism, see the exhibition Visual Poetics: Art and the Word, on view at the Miami Art Museum through November 16. It consists of more than 50 works by 34 international artists who have set image and word on a collision course. The products are expansive and varied but the show cohesively focuses on avant-garde strategies of visual poetics and concrete poetry. Most work chronologically spans the post-World War II period up to the present, but stops short of broaching the digital domain. Even so, this excellent exhibition offers a surprisingly relevant set of models for current and future permutations of the human language project.

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Curator Cheryl Hartup organized the show using three categories: "politics, poetics, and the purely formal." The categories function well as an organizing principle and hold up to scrutiny even if we regard the "p" in "purely" as continuing the alliterative play of letters. Actually, the playfulness of linguistic form and meaning underpins and animates works in any category and drives a multilogue of intentions and formal experimentation that defy easy classification.

Still, there are distinctive eruptions here of cultural politics in such series as Glenn Ligon's Untitled (the Blackness Cannot be Separated From Me But Often I Can Stand Outside It). Quotations from black writers are stenciled large and bold and become progressively smudged, transposing their oral force into a somewhat blurred visual realm. Even one of the most formal works by Carl Andre (from 1956) evokes politics and power in the repetition of the phrase, "Conquest Display," as a modular element in the rhythmic pattern-images of a typewriter. "Poetics" is aptly discussed by Hartup as an intervention of language into desire, memory and psychological formations. Rivane Neuenschwander's video, "Love Lettering," displays words from e-mail messages attached to the tails of goldfish. Here the power of words and messages to somehow "arrive at their destination" seems to dissolve literally in the watery bowl of video.

However fluid the boundaries between the thematic categories, message, and display, the exhibition clearly establishes a point of reference for experimental, avant-garde approaches to image and text through the symbolist poem, "Un Coup de des" by Stephane Mallarme. The themes, visual strategies, and impulse to use chance as a generator of form are spread throughout the exhibition both implicitly and explicitly. …