Text and blank spaces cover the walls of Subliminal Projects gallery. It’s not an essay, it’s art. The art space has partnered with Faction Art Projects in New York to curate “Visual Language,” a bicoastal show focused on text and typography in art. The exhibitions comprise the same artists — including Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer and Chad Kouri — but display different artwork.
“Visual Language” exhibits diverse works ranging from Shepard Fairey’s black and white text piece forming a haunting face underlined by the word “OBEY” to feminist art collective Guerrilla Girls’ straightforward use of bold-lettered text to oppose patriarchal influence of wealth and power on the art world.
Sarah Kaplan, associate director of Subliminal Projects and co-curator of “Visual Language,” expressed the versatility of text in artistic messaging.
“Whether it be ironic, political, abstract, there are different ways text is used in art, and we wanted to express all those different avenues,” Kaplan said.
The Guerrilla Girls took a more humorous approach to address political issues within the art world. Each member of the activist group is anonymous in order to draw focus to the issues at hand rather than their own identities and takes the name of a dead female artist. Käthe Kollwitz, a member who has adopted the moniker of the late German artist, emphasized the importance of making a statement with the politics of art.
“You can’t just point at something you dislike and say, ‘This is bad!’ You have to do more. You have to twist your message, to say it in an unforgettable way. We’ve found that humor is a very powerful tool. If you can make someone who disagrees with you laugh, you have a hook into their brain, and your message stays there and haunts them,” Kollwitz said in an email interview with the Daily Trojan.
The gallery showcases two pieces of work by the Guerrilla Girls, “Wealth & Power” and “The 3 Ways to Write a Wall Label When the Artist is a Sexual Predator,” displayed side by side and linked by the identical orange shade used in the backgrounds.
The first piece consists of a striking image of a large group of women, emulating the Guerrilla Girls, covering their faces with gorilla masks. Above this image is black, block-lettered text followed by the yellow, handwritten words, “Wealth & Power.” The words speak out against the bias and unfair representation of artists in museums.
The second piece is a simple poster that relates to the message of the first. In striking, bold text are the words “3 Ways to Write a Museum Wall Label When the Artist is a Sexual Predator.” Underneath, they demonstrate how to write wall labels for three different categories of museums: “For museums afraid of alienating billionaire trustees and collectors who donated the artist’s work,” “For museums conflicted about disclosing an artist’s abuse next to his art” and “For museums who need help from the Guerrilla Girls.” The progression of the wall labels went from praising the artist and his work in the first column to blatantly showcasing his history of sexual abuse in the last column. .
“The world of artists is great, but the art system today sucks. Museums are trying to be more diverse, but super-rich collectors with their cookie cutter collections of the same (mostly white male) expensive artists are making it difficult,” Kollwitz said.
“We say: Don’t let museums reduce art to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among bigtime dealers, curators and collectors. Unless museums show art as diverse as the cultures they represent, they’re not showing the history of art, they’re just telling the story of wealth and power.”
Feminist artist Betty Tompkins took a more concise approach to using text, separating singular words or phrases on blocks and tiles. These words are part of a series of a thousand words that are commonly used to describe women, including “bitch,” “slut” and “mother.”
“What she did is she emailed her entire contact base and asked them to send her words or phrases or adjectives about women,” Kaplan said.
Of the 3,500 responses she received, Tompkins chose 1,000 of those words to paint. Each tile is unique, consisting of different words and backgrounds. Tompkins makes references in her backgrounds to the artists she calls “Old Boy Champion Painters,” alluding to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in her work.
“Each piece is available individually, but she installs them in different spaces in this way so this is a selection of that series, and I think it’s really powerful,” Kaplan said.
The “Visual Language” exhibition ends Oct. 6. Subliminal Project has open gallery hours Wednesday through Saturday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and is available on Tuesdays by appointment only.