The paintings by Darrell Nettles in Broken Verse are ergodic in the deepest and most satisfying sense of the word: although they require a great deal of effort to unlock their secrets, the engagement they demand makes an encounter with them a rich and rewarding experience. Nettles’ linguistic impressionism employs the gravid ambiguity of language to reveal its deeper treasures; his visual meditations on the images and sounds of human communication owe as much to Klee and Kandinsky’s conflations of visual and musical composition as they do to the playful semantic games championed by the wordsmiths of Dada, Fluxus, and Pop.
Broken Verse is anchored by a series seven-foot-tall canvases arrayed edge to edge with dense pseudo-cryptographic patterns of thin block letters that are tightly juxtaposed and overlapped on soft-edged crossword puzzle grids. Elements have been added, effaced, and replaced into dense palimpsests; words emerge and sounds arise as the eye follows its own course. An underlying architectonic uniformity hints at a clandestine dialogue between the canvases. They speak from their own side with the compelling but exasperating self-assertion found in ancient cyphers and obscure old alchemical engravings.
In his most recent paintings, Nettles has gravitated toward texts that are more immediately legible on first glance, yet ultimately no less mysterious. Snippets of conversation torn from everyday life run from top to bottom in a font that recalls hand-stenciled shop signs; disjunctions and deliberate sidetracks are the mortar that holds them together. Phrases are stacked, clashed, amputated, and sometimes ripped apart and scattered chaotically. The resulting bits of quasi-proclamation and pseudo-communication are both sinister and amusing by turns, calling to mind the gentle snark of Ed Ruscha’s late-1970s word pastels: “drug allergy fake” loiters just far enough from “radical wonton” to establish plausible deniability. Ghostly snippets of text murmur faintly in the background like a mildly sarcastic chorus, echoing, multiplying, and subverting surface meanings (is that “permit tonight” or “hermit night”?). Behind the chatter’s misdirection is the nagging sense of a deeper significance that awaits excavation and exegesis. Nettles’ works dare us to acknowledge the primal and sometimes neurotic need we have to make sense of it all, and the magical ability that language has to both fulfill and thwart that need.