Ah, 'tis the highest season for public speech acts. The sentence "We built it" means something different since umpteen Republican National Convention speakers hammered on it as a refrain. Likewise, "Forward" lands more heavily now that President Obama's hanging his campaign off those two syllables. And "47 percent" certainly won't be a bland figure for a while.
What exactly happens to words and phrases when a candidate, media sector or corporation—or even an individual—seizes upon them for their own purposes? CAM Raleigh has opened two shows that reveal and explore how language, authority and personality work. GirlTalk: Women and Text, up through Jan. 14, gathers the work of nine women to trace feminist modes of textual appropriation and production from the 1980s to the present. (Another show currently up through Nov. 12 in CAM, Jonathan Horowitz's Your Land/My Land: Election '12, creates a bipartisan media lab that's linked virtually to identical nodes at other museums across the country.)
GirlTalk is CAM's most survey-like show to date, bringing together elders Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Kim Rugg, Marilyn Minter and Kay Rosen with a subsequent generation of contemporaries such as Lisa Anne Auerbach, Dana Frankfort, Monique Prieto and Maya Schindler. It's exciting to know that CAM can finagle big-name loans such as Holzer and Kruger despite not having a collection to leverage in exchange.
Works by elders establish a historical context right away. Three of Rugg's alphabetically altered newspaper front pages greet visitors at the museum's information desk. A floating wall in the main gallery immediately presents a Kruger poster reading "You rule by pathetic display" overtop an image of a knife cleaving a stream of water. Three austere Holzer plaques from her "Survival Series," including the ubiquitous "Protect me from what I want," occupy another side of the wall.
Younger contemporaries fill the gallery area framed by this floating wall, and their work is decidedly different. Six of Auerbach's knitted sweater-skirt combinations float in a triangular formation, suspended on invisible thread. The 10 large muslin sheets of Prieto's "Elegy" hang neatly from hooks spaced out along the length of a wall. Two sculptural works by Schindler display capitalized phrases. Another vinyl wall piece by Schindler, as well as four bright text paintings by Frankfort, wait around the gallery's corner.
Where Holzer and Kruger flay open patriarchal power statements, the younger artists (with the exception of Auerbach's acerbic clothing) are on the whole more subtle, ambiguous and personal. Schindler even speaks of her works each as a self-portrait of sorts.
Female artists from the 1970s into the 1990s had to decisively establish their voices by appropriating patriarchal authoritarian communications and deploying them in new public contexts. Because they had to create their own ground to stand on, their iconic textual work was openly critical and subversive. Today's women tend to use a nuanced expressive or exploratory mode to speak at least as much for themselves personally as for a united feminist front.
Los Angeles-based Prieto, in a conversation a day before GirlTalk opened, explained this baton-passing.
"On some level, they had to speak like an institution, making that form their own, to get feminism that authority. They opened things for us," Prieto says.
"Now we can talk and blurt things in lots of different ways."
Her "Elegy"—10 fabric squares, each spray-painted with a word or phrase—is her first venture off a conventional stretched canvas and into the installation realm. You walk the wall and hold the sheets open in sequence from left to right to gradually assemble a figurative sentence about sailing rough seas at night.
Based on the line "a word is elegy to what it signifies" from Robert Hass' poem "Meditation at Lagunitas," Prieto's piece bears more of a formal resemblance to the work of the poet Robert Grenier in its usage of a minimalist strategy to break language off from speech. The reading experience is exclusively linguistic.
You have to build Prieto's sentence, adding to its totality in your memory as you walk to the next cloth. According to the artist, this physical spacing opens a lag time between the recognition of each sign and the understanding of what it signifies. "To understand each moment, you have to bring the past with you," Prieto says.
Schindler's "AS IS" teases the lyrical out from the political, taking the phrases "As it is" and "As it should" from a speech that President Obama gave during the Arab Spring. She painted each word on a separate board and arranged them on posts to look like signage held up by a crowd in the street. Schindler admired how these basic expressions captured the complexity of the situation.
"It's just such a simple way of explaining what's going on over there," Israel native Schindler said of Obama's aspirational, yet guarded, word choices. "Things are getting better, but they're not all the way to where they should be yet."
Schindler sifts public discourse for resonant lines. Street demonstrations hold a particularly sincere appeal for her. "Those rallies, those speech acts, people standing in the streets with those signs ... it's so powerful," she said. "I love reading them. I love that as a form. It's a way to be personal within those giant events."
GirlTalk gives the opportunity to revisit another show in Raleigh focusing on text in art. In August, we reviewed Word Up: The Intersection of Text and Image, an exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art that pulls together the work of six 30-something men from around the state. While the review was critical of that show's exclusion of women, we looked forward to comparing it with GirlTalk. As it turns out, however, GirlTalk doesn't actually offer many points of gender comparison.
The Word Up artists are individually concerned with image and text together, using mostly narrative strategies to produce rhetorical and emotional effects. GirlTalk, however, is entirely devoid of images, save for the photograph beneath Kruger's text. Prieto's point about women having to claim the form in order to use it informs the text-first approach throughout the tradition presented in GirlTalk, an underlying commonality that the Word Up artists simply didn't have to have.
Another prevalent feminist art subject—the body—is nearly absent from the exhibition as well. Auerbach's sweaters and A-line miniskirts provide the only images of bodies in GirlTalk, hanging on partial mannequins molded from Auerbach's body. Floating weirdly above the gallery floor at the artist's height, however, each paired ensemble seems distinctly disembodied, a cheerleader lacking the cheerleader.
The garments are knitted with slogans—sometimes rendered in machine precision, other times in a folksy scrawl—concerning gay marriage, bicycling, temperance and greed. Auerbach's "No on 8" ensemble is the most interesting, featuring a sweater asking "Octowhat?" and including embryos within stop-sign octagons on its front, a large stop sign with same-sex pairs of symbols on the back, and the words "Marriage for all / Octuplets for none" along the skirt's rear hem.
Auerbach's stab at the legislative arrogance of normative sexuality has particular resonance after the passing of an even more powerful textual artifact—Amendment 1—in this state in May. But Auerbach also reminds us, as do all the artists in GirlTalk, that laws, as public texts, are subject to critique, comment and, hopefully, revision. To fight the power, we must edit it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The word in the world."