"In a sense, every work is itself its best description." These words are part of Joseph Kosuth's Essays #7 (2000), currently on view in Deborah Colton Gallery's "Word" exhibition. Kosuth attributes the quote to Franco-Bulgarian thinker Tzvetan Todorov, and it functions as a semi-ironic description of the artist's own work. In 1965 Kosuth broke ground with One and Three Photographs: a photo of a tree, next to a photo of that photo, next to the definition of the word "photograph." It was a cool trick, especially for the '60s. With Essays #7, he presents a photograph of a photograph of One and Three Photographs -- that's five photographs, for those of you who are still counting -- framed by quotes from Todorov and a Belgian literary critic named Georges Poulet. (Perhaps his next trick should be a photograph of the definition for "mise en abyme.") This multiple framing makes for heavy stuff, and you can't help but wonder how many more permutations it'll take before the original tree disappears altogether.
The exhibition is full of wordplay, from the self-referential Black is a word, a 1975 offering from superstar Ben Vautier, in which "black" is painted in black and the other words in white, to Wayne Gilbert's The Difference a Day Makes (2005), in which the local artist has done his trademark goth thing, using real human cremains (i.e. dead people) to construct "9/10" real small and "9/11" super big. Some of the older stuff on view has been imitated in art classes so many times it's tough to feel the bite, but curator L. Brandon Krall has done a good job of keeping the flow going.
Philippe Maucotel's thing (1984) is a painted steel sculpture of the word "thing," and it can be difficult to describe without falling into the vortex of deconstruction. The thing is a thing, you see, but it's also a "thing," meaning it's a signifier of something, which just so happens to be some thing. It's also the signified, of course, and that's the thing. Ya dig?
Christian Xatrec's works aren't quite so circular in their reasoning. Hanging over the inside of the gallery door, EXIST (1984) is a light box jiggered to look like an exit sign, but with an "s" added, urging folks to keep on keeping on. His This Sign (Not) For Sale [Autology] (19892006) has "this sign for sale" written on a board that, when it's sold, will be turned over to reveal "this sign not for sale." And hanging over the gallery space on a felt banner are the titular words of To Be And Not To Be (1991).
The Art Guys were a natural fit for this show, and they offer up four whimsical works from 2006, each a piece of yellow pine with a sentence cut out, such as "This is not what you think" and "This is everything." The phrases are half funny and half philosophical (duh, it's The Art Guys), but I would've rather seen something from the duo's 101 of the World's Greatest Sculpture Proposals, like what they presented at Art League Houston last year, when various ideas for food were described and diagrammed but, for the most part, never executed. That was a fresher take on language -- treating a description of a potential project as an art object -- than what's on view at Deborah Colton.
As with many of the works, the title of Gary Sweeney's Art Must Take Reality by Surprise (2002) gives you the whole of the text. Sweeney spelled out his message with letters from old roadside signs, taking a realty sign, for example, chopping it in half and adding an "i" to make "reality." This reappropriation of old signage makes for a nice conceptual touch, but ultimately the piece works because, unlike some of the show's offerings, it's visually interesting. Sure, the idea might be the most important thing, but sometimes you just wanna stare.
William Stone's And tables (1999) are definitely worth a long look. These two white tables sport two circular fans -- which, considering the gallery's spotty a/c system, are an attraction in themselves -- and have panels cut out and reattached on rods. As the wind blows, the panels keep flipping over, revealing the words "over" and "and" over and over again. It's a visual pun, much like his The Role of the Church (1999), a small wooden church with a dinner roll in the middle.
Robert Barry's work can be difficult -- for example, when he created unperceivable art by releasing inert gases in the Mojave Desert or when he typed out obscure phrases on index cards, a couple of which are on display here -- but his Carousel (2005) DVD doesn't require a master's in pomo theory to be enjoyed. The viewer can just sit back and watch as loaded words -- "essential," "inevitable," "regret," "confusing" -- appear against a black background. Through the letters you can see a still-camera video of a carousel stopping and circling and stopping, accompanied by the sounds of shuffling feet, a whistle, the howling of vendors, a siren. Each word becomes a koan of sorts, an impetus for the viewer to reflect on his or her own feelings upon reading each word.
There are plenty of other interesting pieces in the show, including some by celeb artists such as Yoko Ono and Ed Ruscha, but description can only get us so far. Every work in "Word" draws on common language, which we all share -- that's how it works -- but words also have private meanings, and ultimately each piece must be experienced on an individual level. Such is perception.
Not to, you know, imply that reading art reviews is a waste of time.
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