November 6, 2012

Drew Messinger-Michaels, AM’10

Where there is art, there is usually wall text, and that text tends to serve a narrow and reliable purpose. It explains. It clarifies. It provides ready answers to presumed questions. It puts the historically dislocated into historical context, and it welds conceptual art-objects to the occasionally unintuitive concepts behind them. If contemporary art is the deep end of an aesthetic and theoretical swimming pool, then traditional wall text is a pair of water wings.

In a building-wide exhibition at the newly opened Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, wall text refuses to operate in so subordinate or expository a mode. Under the curation of Open Practice Committee (OPC) Coordinator Zachary Cahill, MFA’07, and the Logan Center’s Visual Arts Program Curator Monika Szewczyk, ten artists have come together to creates texts that are not companions to art, but rather, art in their own right—capable not just of clarifying but also of evoking laughter, reflection, and a renewed curiosity about the relationship between words and spaces. 

Wall Text, on display through November 30, is the first full-scale collaboration between the OPC and Logan Center Exhibitions. And it’s the first of many to come, promises Cahill. Appropriately, every artist in the exhibition has some relationship – alumni, faculty, lecturer, close colleague – with UChicago’s Department of Visual Arts and the OPC.

“I see the programming work of the OPC as complementing what Monika is planning for Logan Center Exhibitions,” says Cahill. “The gallery as a site is a primary locus of artistic production, and it is wonderful to work with a colleague who has such an innovative approach in understanding what an exhibition can be and how it meets its audience.”

That very encounter is at the core of Wall Text. Jenny Holzer’s work in particular plays keenly with our assumptions about the mundanity of text on walls. Her work takes the form of bronze plaques, implicitly promising to commemorate some specific historical event or significant donor, and then subversively inserting wisdom where we expect mere information. “If you aren’t political,” reads a plaque from her Truisms series, “your personal life should be exemplary.”

As co-curator Zachary Cahill explains, Wall Text is in large part an inquiry into “how work can occupy the space” of the Logan Center. And in a sense, the body of work that comprises Wall Text serves primarily as an invitation. “The show is highlighting a longstanding interest in the relationship between language and verbal/visual representation, starting with Jenny Holzer’s work, or with Buzz Spector, MFA’78, who founded WhiteWalls. And of course, it’s of interest not only in the Department of Visual Art but throughout UChicago. Thinkers like W.J.T. Mitchel come to mind, with his interest in verbal/visual representation.”

Anthony Elms, MFA’96, has provided a series of quotes, affixed to the wall in vinyl, under the title These are the days my friend and these are the days, my friend, several of them pertaining to hosting, hospitality, and companionship. Mike Schuh’s, MFA’09, Not Undone takes a YouTube video about making party streamers (again, as though in preparation for a gathering) and ties it to its specific location, propping up a projector with wood and bricks, materials found within the building, and projecting the image near a window so that its degree of visibility changes with the time of day.

Wall Text is as much about walls as it is about text and, taken as a whole, the exhibition foregrounds the Logan Center itself as a site of exploration, both physical and intellectual. With its resolutely continuous spaces and airy, plentiful windows—present in both the exterior and interior walls—the Logan Center is at once dauntingly expansive and deceptively navigable. Just as Wall Text prods at the formal and functional boundaries of text, so too does the Logan Center prod at the formal and functional boundaries of walls.

Indeed, Department of Visual Arts Associate Professors William Pope.L’s contribution adorns windows rather than walls, streaking the stairwells and corridors with black vinyl line drawings of a sprawling cliffside, and on top of those cliffs, a sequence of monumental and initially inscrutable letters—an O here, an S there, natural light behind them. This is that rare art installation that comes with a spoiler alert: the letters ultimately spell out “ON STRIKE FOR BETTER SCHOOLS.” The message, being a call for pedagogy, requires a little of the attentiveness and critical inquiry that pedagogy fosters. It’s a piece that requires wandering and rewards curiosity.

To aid the curious and facilitate rich wandering, David Giordano, MFA’12, whose work is also featured in the Wall Text, has produced a textual map of the exhibition—a sort of walking guide, arranged both by the physical locations of the pieces and by the artists who produced them.

“The idea is that people can have an itinerary to follow,” explains Cahill, “but beyond that, we’re also interested in the exhibition being something that people live with. The people who use this building constantly will happen upon work, and come to feel that some of these pieces are theirs.”