How image meets text, sequence meets sheet

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January 10th, 2013

 

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

Art in Print

NANCY PRINCENTHAL

Originally published Sept-Oct 2011

 

Learning to read art, as Lawrence Weiner long ago exhorted, is not a simple process. Where the textual meets the visual, demands outnumber easy pleasures. It Is Almost That is rich in both challenge and satisfaction. This collection of “twenty-six visionary image+text works by women artists and writers,” in the words of its publisher and editor, Lisa Pearson of Siglio Press, is, as she promises, not a traditional anthology. It is not arranged chronologically, nor alphabetically, nor by theme or format. Concluding the book is its earliest entry, a section of Charlotte Salomon’s remarkable autobiographical graphic novel, Life? Or Theater? A Song Play (1940-42). Mordant, psychologically astute and supple in her draftsmanship, Salomon was something of a female Jules Pfeiffer, although her ambitions ran to the epic. (This 1,325-frame magnum opus was made before Salomon was sent to Auschwitz, where she died.) It Is Almost That‘s most recent entries include an excerpt from a 2011 photo and prose piece by Bhanu and Rohini Kapil that offers an elliptical reflection on the ravages of ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan. Jane Hammond’s Fallen (Fig. 1), a commemoration in paper leaves, each inscribed with a dead soldier’s name, of American servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Iraq, is ongoing. Some of the book’s contributors are well known—Louise Bourgeois, most notably—and some are not. Most of the works were made on paper, but there are also reproductions of paintings on canvas, by Sue Williams, and of a 6,080-square-foot inlaid cork floor, by Ann Hamilton—a carpet of text that runs in several directions, like the pattern of a Persian rug, and draws from as many historical dialects.

For all its heterogeneity, there is a kind of logic at work in this volume, its pull subtle but strong. Not exactly a continuous narrative, it is more than an assembly of disconnected chapters. It opens with three memoir fragments by Adrian Piper from 1978-80 in which run-in text is superimposed over photographs. The decorousness and equanimity of Piper’s reminiscences are belied by the daily humiliations she reports having suffered in childhood and adolescence; her rage is revealed mainly in the tightly packed, unrelenting cataract of prose—in the refusal to yield even a breath of white space on the page. Two other works from the 1970s follow, including a piece by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha that gives this book its title. Even more dispassionate than Piper’s work, Cha’s It Is Almost That (1977) (Fig. 2) is composed of title cards used for a slide presentation. The terse white-on-black text fragments seem to be isolated bits of language instruction, with an emphasis on words for subject identity and position, and can be read as a rudimentary exercise for autobiographical writing. (It is made angry, and horribly sad, only by the knowledge that its author would be murdered by a stranger in 1982.) Before long, we are in the lean, forceful hands of Louise Bourgeois, whose 1947 He Disappeared Into Complete Silence, a suite of nine etchings each paired with a short text, is a macabre, extremely funny and, again, wonderfully laconic series of barbed meditations on the ways of men, and of women. . . .

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