It Is Almost That: Refusing the empirical and the transparent

Reviews

April 13th, 2013

 

(Review) It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers

X-TRA

Semblances of Truth

ANNA MAYER

Originally published Fall 2012

 

It Is Almost That is a collection of “image+text work by women artists and writers” that includes works made in English-speaking countries between the 1940s and its year of publication, 2011. In the book’s afterword, editor Lisa Pearson describes the volume as the first of a series of books dedicated to image and text work, with its focus on women as a gesture towards correcting the “deep gender inequality when it comes to the coveted real estate of exhibitions and publications.”1 With that Pearson dispenses with the issue of the book’s all-female roster. She could have gone on to say more, specifically about the lack of women artists in the scholarly discourse around Conceptual art. However, we find the rest of Pearson’s argument in the collection itself: its inclusiveness and sampling nature expands the established parameters of the discourse around image and text works, some of which have to do with gender. In addition, Siglio’s series is particularly relevant to this moment when conventional journalism—a field full of images and texts in perpetual counterpoint—must be challenged.

The declaration of the collection’s title suggests some of the concreteness, the “I Am Here”-ness,2 that characterized 1960s and 1970s Conceptual art.3 In this case, however, “It Is Almost That” is a statement that invokes hybridity and ambiguity, rather than a definitive, obstinate claim for the transparency of language or image.4 In another gesture towards in-between-ness, all of the images are printed in shades of gray. Significantly, the texts in all of the works reproduced in the book are fully legible. As a result, the collection can be experienced like an exhibition, but in this book format one has the time and inclination to read all the text fully, rather than pausing in front of a language-heavy drawing in a gallery, shifting from leg to leg and wondering what’s on the next wall. Thus the lateral nature of the annotations that appear before each of the twenty-six works—in most cases they are excerpts from artist statements—is welcome.

Three of Adrian Piper’s Political Self-Portraits (1978–80) are the first works reproduced in the book.5 Their substantive presence and alpha position announce immediately that the collection accepts that the personal is political and vice versa. As one of the only women canonized for her text and image work from the 1970s and 1980s, Piper’s placement at the beginning of the collection also points to this period and, perhaps, its relative lack of historicized women artists. Most importantly, however, these works by Piper defy being categorized as just one thing. Indeed they can be identified as Conceptual art as well as a precursor to 1990s Identity art. The self-portraits are, obviously, autobiographical, while at the same time playing with the relationship of the imaged body to the overlaying text. Pieces like the Political Self-Portraits series suggest that history’s well-defined genres are porous and exemplify how the combination of text and image can suggest new strategies for articulating the self in public.6 These propositions remain relevant and revelatory decades later.

After the Piper pieces come works from prior and successive decades by producers who identify as artists, writers, and, in the case of the Bambanani Women’s Group, citizen workshop participants. The time span covered by the works in It Is Almost That establishes that the combining of language and image is something that women did provocatively long before the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, He Disappeared into Complete Silence (1947) by Louise Bourgeois unapologetically plays with misalignment between image and caption or, if you’re coming from the literary side of things, between text and illustration. These modest works speak to the destabilizing effects of World War II on the psychology of individuals as well as on aspects of the material world such as architecture. Unica Zurn’s drawings from The House of Illnesses (1958), made in a fevered state, address the pathologizing of the body in a postwar time period. Her compositions shift between sprawling, annotated doodling and diaristic writing and point to ways in which the different states of health and illness are determined by and, at the same time, are incomprehensible to established institutions.

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