Text takes on new definitions at trio of shows
Every so often, a cluster of exhibitions seems to signal—or re-signal—our cultural fascination with text-based art. Graham Gillmore at the Monte Clark Gallery, Bratsa Bonifacho at the Evergreen Cultural Centre, and the late Enn Erisalu at Trench Gallery have all lodged their distinctive paintings at the interface between the visual and the verbal. Between the modern and the postmodern, too.
Enn Erisalu: Paris White
At Trench Gallery until March 3
Erisalu’s beautifully austere works, with their mechanically exact letters and numbers applied over expressively painted grounds, take as their subject their own deconstruction. They may depict the chemical formula and atomic weight of the metals in their pigments (ZN30/65.38 in Zinc), or their height and width (167X185cm), or the activity of looking at them (READ). In creating these works in the early 1990s, Erisalu was both immersing himself in and distancing himself from the painterly acts of representation and abstraction. (Get to this show quickly: its last day is Saturday [March 3].)
Graham Gillmore: Willing to Learn
At the Monte Clark Gallery until March 24
For the past few years, Gillmore has been making large abstract paintings on wooden panels, juxtaposing abstract-expressionist drips, blobs, and splatters of pigment with weird plaids created by overlapping different combinations of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines. Into the complicated surfaces of these works, executed in oil paint and glossy enamel, he has routered humorously inflected pop-culture and pseudo-psychological words and phrases in assertive, uppercase letters—as can be seen in his current show, Willing to Learn. Installed in the gallery’s front window, for instance, is We Applaud You for Your Psycho Pharmacentric Self Preservation; this painting, whose title is also its text, closely resembles work he exhibited here in 2009.
Clever as they are, some of Gillmore’s strategies are starting to feel formulaic. Happily, his current show also introduces us to a new series of text works, addressing ideas about the acquisition of language and adding an unexpected element of figuration. In two large and complex paintings, with words, figures, and decorative motifs again routered into their surfaces, Gillmore has appropriated material from a vintage activity book for children. The illustrated figures of a boy and a girl, leaning over a birthday cake, are depicted repeatedly and in parts—head and torso, arms, lower bodies—across the paintings. The instructions incorporated into one of these works describe how to cut out and assemble the pieces of “Sandy and Susie” in paper or cardboard, but somehow this assembly seems an impossibly surreal task.
Rather than looking cutely nostalgic, the figures come across as grotesque, as if they had been violently dismembered. An alternative reading is suggested by a question posed in one work: “Can complex information write itself?” This evocation of artificial intelligence introduces the possibility that these broken-up figures are parts of cyborgs. From the handmade activities of the pre-digital age, Gillmore drags us into an unnerving, robotic future. A mood of foreboding descends.
Bratsa Bonifacho: Inside Habitat Pixel
At the Art Gallery at Evergreen until April 7
Foreboding also permeates Inside Habitat Pixel, Bonifacho’s solo show of richly hued modernist paintings at Evergreen. Designed by guest curator Ann Rosenberg to function as a teaching exhibition and, with its very extensive labels, to serve also as a walk-through catalogue, it examines four series of Bonifacho’s works, all of them employing various combinations of words, letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and assorted symbols. The most interesting of these series, “Habitat Pixel”, is an intensively hand-worked response to our computer-driven age. Here, Bonifacho finds abstract ways to investigate the insidious and potentially disastrous effects of computer viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. The scrambled language that plays across his canvas reflects his fascination with—and anxieties about—our global dependence on computers and our vulnerability to destructive, invasive programs.
Employing the essential structure of the grid, Bonifacho builds up and scrapes down his painted surface in a skilled play of sgraffito. A gorgeous example of this technique is Encrypted Zambles, with its right-side-up, upside-down, and sideways letters and symbols executed in dark and bright blues overlaid with off-white. (In both form and motif, as Rosenberg points out, Bonifacho’s “Habitat Pixel” works are reminiscent of Jasper Johns’s encaustic paintings from the late 1950s.)
Ours is an era when the printed word is disappearing into the digital realm, when the messy evidence of the human hand is being eliminated by orderly alignments of pixels, and when both social communication and cultural expression make their way to us through smaller and smaller handheld electronic devices. In their layered, scratched, and scumbled surfaces and their strong material presence, Bonifacho’s recent works address and redress the technologies that separate us from our experience of the world.