In borrowing texts, Fowler calls attention to the multiple valences of language and its use. Her work is reminiscent of other text artists, such as Allen Ruppersberg and Ed Ruscha. But Fowler, a lesbian and a feminist, recognizes the male biases in language and culture and actively opposes them by critically replacing them with sex-positive, feminist, and queered alternatives. “I think there’s a very sexist impulse to desexualize lesbians,” Fowler has said. “I’ve tried to work within the parameters of mainstream tropes to undo that.”
Fowler often uses appropriation as a strategy, and one of the most powerful examples is her 2006-07 silkscreen poster, RUB HER COKE. The print reproduces the entire text of Gertrude Stein’s 1914 poem, “Peeled Pencil, Choke,” along with the title, Stein’s name, and the date. The alliterative verbal properties and puns of the text are downplayed, instead emphasizing the female subject and the sexual desire of the instructive phrase. The phrase reappears on RUB HER COKE (2015) as letters arranged in a vertical string across a circular, floor-based brass and walnut sculpture that resembles a tabletop, seat, or pedestal.
Another work, the difference is spreading (2015) uses the same phrase as the exhibition’s title, taken from another poem in the same collection by Stein. Again, the language has a haptic quality to it, strongly—though obliquely—evoking images of sex. The black-on-black silkscreen makes the text slightly hidden, surreptitious. Conversely, it is brightly announced in a neon sculpture, also called the difference is spreading (2015). This pushing and pulling of the viewer keeps them actively engaged with the texts, much in the way that Stein’s use of repetition could be both lulling and seductive, as well as brash or erupting.
The text of Stein’s “Patriarchal Poetry” (1927) is reproduced in an eponymously titled 2015 painting, using false dichotomies and dyads to describe the clichés of patriarchal models of the world. In a series of collages made with Xeroxed text, Fowler uses the kinds of alliterative repetitions employed by Stein, such as Having had it in way the having had it anyway having had it anyway having had it in that way, having had it and had and heard it in this way mountains are understood (2015). These pieces are likewise composed to create visual rhymes and patterns.
Fowler has, in previous work, photographed young lesbian artists, calling attention to their power and agency. She has also shown text on billboards, inserting them into the landscape. Now she brings that text inside, expanding its intrinsic relation to our private spaces.
“the difference is spreading” is on view at MIER Gallery, Los Angeles, May 22–July 3, 2015.