Text as Art in Orange County

Even before Picasso and Braque began to use scraps of newspaper in their collages, or Jasper Johns created his alphabet works, text was present in art. However, there has never been a time when words and letters have been everywhere we turn, and relied upon, as in the present. “ConTEXTual Abstraction,” a group show curated by Mat Gleason at Peter Blake Gallery in Orange County, examines this phenomenon and the ways in which artists react to text as the arbiter of meaning.

  • Installation view of “ConTEXTual Abstraction,” Peter Blake Gallery, Laguna Beach. Courtesy Peter Blake Gallery.

Several of the artists included in the exhibition have deconstructed text into its basic building blocks, using letters as suggestive forms. Abstract artist Molly Larkey shows steel sculptures that at first glance are simple shapes, but as the viewer moves around them, they begin to coalesce into letters or numbers. 

  • Installation view of “ConTEXTual Abstraction,” Peter Blake Gallery, Laguna Beach. Courtesy Peter Blake Gallery.

To create the works in his series “Time Machine” (so called because each work refers to a year in the artist’s life), Mark Dutcher begins with a type of automatic writing related to Surrealism, and then builds them into large, semi-abstract paintings. JonMarc Edwards’s works rely on the practice of choosing letters for their specific shapes, such as in SOUL, in which the artist layers the word’s individual letters on top of each other to create a complex labyrinthine shapes that reflect the word’s meaning.

Other artists in “ConTEXTual Abstraction” reference text by its most common usage—as intrinsic to writing. Some take the traditions of literature as a source of inspiration. Gary Lang and Cole Sternberg show paintings that give poetic language visual embellishment, be it through Lang’s straightforward, colorful block letters in Swallowing, or Sternberg’s almost illegible flowing evocations that build up into landscapes, as in And The Sky Turned Orange, But Her Eyes Were Bloodshot. Tim Youd has retyped a novel by Bukowski; he puts two sheets of paper put through a vintage typewriter while it is filled with paint. The resulting display is a diptych that is the residue of his creative steps; on one page, the original text is legible, while the other is partially destroyed evidence of the process.

William Powhida and Adam Mars both present works that are highly self-referential, and somewhat cynical. Powhida is a former critic who brings an understanding of the language of conceptual art into his process, literally. The artist writes about the work he wants to make and works that plan into the final sculpture: “Idea: Make a surface-oriented abstract something using only black and white materials, paint etc...,” handwritten in pencil on a piece of lined notebook paper that the artist has drawn, is manifested in the neighboring display, a dichromatic, wall-hung sculpture made of wood and Plexiglass entitled A Neo-Modernism (Sculpture and Painting). Mars, on the other hand, creates statements that challenge either the identity of the artist or the art world, such as For Eli Broad Or Some Rich Broad. Both artists seem to see the current state of art as a series of steps and scenarios that can be broken down and analyzed, for better or worse.

Seen as a whole, “ConTEXTual Abstraction” reflects and explores the evolutionary process of making  art. With letters and words being omnipresent in the world around us, they logically become a recurring motif for artists worldwide.

—K. Sundberg

ConTEXTual Abstraction” at Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach, Mar. 21–May 2, 2015.

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