Shannon Ebner's 'Electric Comma' and Her Obsession with Giant Ampersands

An ampersand, lurking on an abandoned lot in Culver City.
An ampersand, lurking on an abandoned lot in Culver City.
Kelly Barrie, courtesy of LAXArt.

In case you haven't noticed, Culver City boasts a new strange addition to its cityscape: a giant ampersand on an abandoned lot on the corner of Washington and Centinela. It gets bonus points in strangeness for glowing in the dark. But this isn't just a bizarre art stunt -- the ampersand is linked to its twin in Venice, Italy, where it was installed for the Venice Biennale by L.A. conceptual artist Shannon Ebner.

As far as conceptualism goes, Ebner is knee-deep in it. Her Culver City ampersand (entitled and, per se and) is cryptic in its lack of context. As it turns out, Ebner has made a few ampersands before, notably in Milan. But this one, she explains, is slightly different.

The ampersand, lit up at night.
The ampersand, lit up at night.
Kelly Barrie, courtesy of LAXArt

"I knew I wanted [to install it on] a lot that was your prototypical Los Angeles lot -- some kind of weird transitional space where other signs would gather. Luckily, there happened to be one that Culver City could give us permission to use for a short period of time.

"I wanted it to have this quality of blankness, to be a space that had not yet been inscribed with any kind of architecture. But, once something became designated on it, it would become really conversational. That sculpture is always asking a question."

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The ampersand is a shorthand for Ebner's overall approach to art: she creates highly conceptual works that cannot help but engage the viewer in conversation. Their immediacy stems from Ebner's fascination with language, word art and signage, which has played an important role in her work and led people to place her alongside artists such as Lawrence Wiener and Ed Ruscha.

Ebner prefers not to look at her work in terms of a lineage, though. Instead, she approaches ideas sideways and linking them together in unconventional ways. For her current four-part exhibit entitled "The Electric Comma," Ebner is working with an unfinished poem of the same name which explores the idea of the "photographic sentence."

Agitate by Shannon Ebner
Agitate by Shannon Ebner
Kelly Barrie, courtesy of LAXArt

Ebner is interested in the way that words cease to function as language when they become photographable objects. This idea shows up in her works that were recently on display at LAXArt, such as Agitate (see photo above), a spread of large photographs that feature the letters of the word sprawling over the boundaries of each picture, or Comma, Pause, Delay, an installation of photographs of letters that spell out the title, each word created with cinderblocks. The pieces, though deceptively simple, cause a viewer to pause as the they realize that the letters are actual objects in the real world.

Her ongoing exhibit at the Hammer Museum also works with this idea, though in more subtle ways. Two large multi-panel photographic works evoke letters without representing them, notably in Ebner's large-scale pictures of scattered road flares. Meanwhile, her curator, Anne Ellegood, commissioned a series of works for the Hammer's light boxes, which are back-lit, sunken frames installed outside the Billy Wilder Theater. They spell out the word "Asterisk" as each lightbox flashes in a random sequence to reveal parts of the word (see photo below).

Shannon Ebner's Asterisk, on view through October 9
Shannon Ebner's Asterisk, on view through October 9
Brian Forrest, courtesy of the Hammer Museum

"I thought she would approach the use of lighting in an unusual way," Ellegood wrote in an e-mail explaining her choice to commission the works. "I liked the idea that the light boxes would be connected to work in the gallery, and be part of a larger project, rather than just existing on their own."

Ebner refers to the particular design of her letters as "the Strike alphabet," named for the slashes that often intersperse the words.

With these new projects, Ebner has moved away from her trademark approach that caught the art world's attention, in which she sculpted words in large-scale shapes and photographed them in front of blank California landscapes (such as in 2003's U.S.A, below), earning her a comparison to Ruscha.

Shannon Ebner's U.S.A. (2003)
Shannon Ebner's U.S.A. (2003)
Courtesy of Wallspace

Now, the landscapes are gone, and her works focus in on the words themselves; they're not in a context or recognizable place. This desire to remove the context is unusual for a photographer. "I'm trying to get the photograph to exist outside a place and a time, and trying to prevent the images from being too locked down. It's been the job of photographs for so long to locate, record, describe. In a lot of ways, I've found it to be a bit limiting," she says.

Images of road flares, captured to look like language
Images of road flares, captured to look like language
Brian Forrest. Hammer Projects: Shannon Ebner. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. July 15 - October 9, 2011.

In many ways, Ebner's work is an abstract reflection of L.A. A New Jersey native, Ebner moved here in 2000 after living in New York for many years. "Los Angeles really was unknown to me, and felt really lawless when I first moved here. It's so vast that it's a really nice challenge to understand the city. It felt so uncontainable," she says. Initially, she was inspired by the open hillsides in East L.A.'s City Terrace. Now that she's moved away from those landscapes, her work still contains a lot of traces of L.A.'s urban landscape.

"The cinderblocks had a lot to do with L.A.," she says, and with "Naomi Klein's book about disaster capitalism. I was thinking about cities in a very politicized way -- what would happen if a building was destroyed by terrorists? You'd be left with cinder blocks. But I'm also just surrounded by [cinderblocks] here."

In many ways, Ebner's work is an always evolving response to the traditional limits of language, and the charm of her answers lie in their incompleteness. Ellegood says, "I think she is fascinated with how language seems to provide answers -- seems to articulate, extrapolate, and explain -- but how it always somehow fails to provide a full or complete meaning."

Shannon Ebner's and, per se and is on display in Culver City until Oct. 16. Her show at the Hammer is open until October 9.

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