When Rene Magritte noted the difference between a pipe and the image of a pipe in his 1929 painting The Treachery of Images, he was making a provocative conceptual statement. Thirty years later, when a new generation of artists decided abstract expressionism had run its course, people like Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari began to incorporate benign or enigmatic phrases, reopening the alphabet to artists in their wake — practitioners like Jenny Holzer, Shepard Fairey, Wayne White and the Guerrilla Girls, all of whom are part of the bicoastal group show “Visual Language,” presented simultaneously by Subliminal Projects in Los Angeles and Faction Art Projects in New York through Oct. 6.
Words in art can be used to clarify or obscure, and sometimes are employed as abstract forms. But in the modern era, protest has been an emphasis. At Faction, D*Face’s “Peace Is a Dirty Word” spells “peace” in flowing metallic script written in the bending barrel of a gun. At Subliminal, Ed Ruscha’s flat bite etching contains the words “Zoot Suit,” and Shepard Fairey’s “This Is a Poster” features dense text over his signature “obey” visage of Andre the Giant.
Jenny Holzer speaks directly to the viewer with printed dispatches to an establishment that marginalizes women and people of color. “All you rich fuckers see the beginning of the end and take what you can while you can,” it reads, in part, ending with, “Know that your future is with us so don’t give us more reasons to hate you.” It’s part of her “Inflammatory Essays” series, printed posters inspired by figures like Mao Zedong and Emma Goldman, which began appearing on walls and buildings in Manhattan in the early 1980s. A selection of these are in the show, along with some of her “Living Series,” based on informative plaques bearing aphorisms about the modern age.
“Inflammatory Essays” grew out of Holzer’s previous work, “Truisms” (also included), which are shorter, epigrammatic phrases based on her reading list of the Whitney Independent Study program, where she was a student in the late 1970s. “They’re like the truisms, drawn from what I hoped was genuinely inspirational text to sometimes frightening ones that reveal the danger of hate speech and whipping people into a fury of rage and despair so they do something drastic,” she says of some of her earliest works. “Words that are meant to be in the street for the general public, it’s important that the language is clear and clean. You have a chance to convey something to somebody who is walking by and thinking about something else.”
Where Holzer concisely uses text to channel an intellectual point, Wayne White’s work veers closer to poetry. A winner of two Daytime Emmys for his art direction and puppets on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, White also directed videos for Peter Gabriel and Smashing Pumpkins before turning to word paintings in 2000 with Nixon. The image of the 37th president’s name in soft block letters in a bucolic landscape became the album cover for the alt-country band Lamb Chop. Since then, text has become a dominant motif in White’s work.
Four of White’s paintings are on hand, including “Art Is Supposed to Hypnotize You or Something,” with block letters scrolling from small to large across a hilly landscape. “I wanted to cut out metaphor. I wanted to speak to the viewer in the most direct way possible. What’s more direct than words?” he asks, explaining his use of text. “Sometimes I want to be super clear, like ‘fuck you.’ And sometimes I'm a little more poetic. I kind of consider them poems or very short prose pieces.”
A unifying element beyond text is the use of humor to target vanity and ego, which begs the question, where does Trump fit into his practice? “I don’t want to go near him,” White says. “I don’t want to use my talents to handle that.” Holzer would only say that she finds the president “astonishingly dangerous and creepy.”
The Guerrilla Girls, on the other hand, are happy to address the president head on. “President Trump’s New Commemorative Months,” a poster featured at this year’s Women’s March, offers Ku Klux Klan Month as an alternative to African-American History Month, and Locker Room Talk Month in place of Women’s History Month.
“It’s happening these days, the truth is not truth,” explains a founding member of the Guerrilla Girls who goes by the name of 1920s expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz. The anonymous organization has cycled through some 55 members over 30 years, and is composed of artists who may participate for a few weeks at a time or stay for decades.
At Subliminal, the Guerrilla Girls are represented by two pieces, including 2016’s “Wealth Power,” featuring a cadre of women holding cutouts of the group’s trademark gorilla mask over their faces. Text above them reads, “DON’T LET MUSEUMS reduce art to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among big-time dealers, curators and collectors. If museums don’t show art as DIVERSE as the cultures they claim to represent, TELL THEM they are not showing the history of art, they are just preserving the history of wealth & power.”
“This is one of our foundational ideas,” Kollwitz says. “Museums just collect art by white males that kings, queens, billionaires, etc., collected and gave to the museum. That is not the picture of our culture. The fancy art world has become fancier and more professionalized, and by professionalized I mean prices are higher. There is a small group of collectors who collect the same cadre of artists. They sit on the boards of museums and often have their own museum, i.e., Eli Broad. That work will be preserved, and 100 years from now you can see it. But what about the incredible other work? We need to make sure that that gets into institutions and is also preserved.”
And when that happens, Kollwitz will be able to take off her mask and hang it up for good. “I don’t see that coming. I think the best thing for us to do is try to produce something that might have the power to change some people’s minds.”
Subliminal Projects, 1331 W Sunset Blvd., Echo Park: (213) 213-0078, subliminalprojects.com; Wed. – Sat., noon – 6p.m., through Oct. 6; free.
Faction Art Projects, 2602 Frederick Douglass Blvd., Harlem, New York. Sept. 14-Oct. 6.