Curated by Katie Bethune-Leamen. Featuring Valerie Blass, Anthony Burnham, Robert Fones, Martin Golland, Jen Hutton, Kelly Jazvac, John Massey, Elizabeth McIntosh, Planningtorock, Tony Romano Blackwood Gallery at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
The Way I Are, on view at Art Gallery Mendocino this winter, took its title and inspiration from hip-hop producer and artist Timbaland’s 2007 single of the same name. Featuring 10 artists working in a variety of media, The Way I Are considered the relationship between artistic practice and informal speech. Katie Bethune-Leamen, the exhibition’s curator, used the song’s awkward title as a starting point from which to argue for a specific conception of slang and its use as an interpretive method. The show’s central concern with slang arouses the potential to frustrate the act of communication itself. Regardless of the specific meanings of slang, its deeper significance lies in the speaker’s refusal to accept language and signification as fixed and impersonal. Slang is a creative and political intervention into formal language and its use, and therefore declares a personal and often combative stake in communication (take Caliban’s famous retort in The Tempest for example: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse”). The purpose and risk of this creative intervention is that it can be easily misunderstood or not understood at all. Communicating through slang is then always fraught with a multiplicity of possible meanings and outcomes.
Yet, for an exhibition ostensibly concerned with slang, no work in the show directly referenced informal speech or its place within language and culture. Rather, the show used slang’s potential for ambiguity as a means to comprehend various formal or conceptual practices. Revelling in her own inability to pronounce “the way I are” when describing Timbaland’s song to others, Bethune-Leamen chose a series of works that reflected the title’s (and slang’s) ambiguity. Perhaps then, The Way I Err may have been a more illustrative title given the show’s focus on the instability of slang and Blackwood Gallery Curator/Director Christof Migone’s assertion that coherence may not be “equivalent with rigour.” This slight alteration of the title shifts the emphasis of the show towards the kinds of miscommunications and ambiguities that Bethune-Leamen so appreciated in Timbaland’s The Way I Are. Indeed the exhibition, like slang, was precariously balanced between the will to communicate and the drive for forms of expression that themselves may not be fully coherent. Some works succeeded in this context more than others and it was sometimes difficult to fully grasp what elements of slang were actually at work in the objects, images and videos in the show. There were some interesting and successful choices; in particular, works by Edgar Paul, John Massey and Kelly Jazvac stood out within this curatorial framework.
Robert Fones’ Leviathan #5 (2008) brilliantly evokes the confusion in the exhibition’s title. As one of two works in the show that included actual text, the piece provides an illustrative link between slang’s ambiguity in the linguistic realm and problems of representation in the visual. Leviathan #5 is part of a larger series of panels across which Fones has “designed, sculpted, painted, then photographed” the first two lines of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). Displayed without punctuation or spaces between words and truncated by the sides of the panel, Hobbes’ text disappears into an abstracted and barely legible series of letters. Yet while Fones’ laborious process of representation has rendered Leviathan illegible, it ironically provides an insightful reading into the original text. In the first two lines of Leviathan, Hobbes describes the imitation of nature by “the art of man” and reduces life to a mechanistic “motion of limbs,” which man imitates in such things as watches and other engines. Over the course of the opening paragraph, Hobbes goes on to describe the State (Leviathan) as a complete body with joints (the judiciary) and nerves (the correctional system) and other characteristics of the human body. This artificial social and political body is invested with the power to act on behalf of all the bodies that make up the State. In Leviathan #5, Hobbes’ holistic and mechanistic representation of the social body, with its total aversion to contradiction, is confronted by Fones’ idiosyncratic representation of individual letters. As words run into each other or are broken up by the edges of the panel, the works shifts the emphasis of representation to the particular and the incomplete. More importantly, Hobbes’ argument is radically dependent on his belief in the transparency of representation, especially as he equates representation with imitation or mimesis. Hobbes uncritically maps his conception of art topic onto the social sphere, never acknowledging the effect this representational process has on his logic. Fones’ insistence on the breakdown of the legibility of the text through a laboured form of representation calls attention to this aspect of Hobbes’ text. For Fones, representation is not a matter of truth or imitation but of form, a conceit that threatens Hobbes’ entire conception of the State. In this sense, Leviathan #5 demonstrates the way in which slang’s ability to frustrate communication can be used as a visual strategy as well.
John Massey’s Pink Dawn (2005) comes closest to the kind of startling ambiguity Bethune-Leamen experienced with Timbaland’s The Way I Are. As part of a series of photographs (This Land [The Photographs] 2005-08), that combines images of luxury car interiors with wilderness landscapes, the piece is a marvel of combination. At first glance, Pink Dawn seems to be merely another luxury car advert; the beige interior of the car is foregrounded against a pink sun setting over the ocean. However, slight differences and imperfections in the lighting between background and foreground and the absence of any land visible outside the car windows serve to give the image a kind of weightlessness. Without a beach or coast, the car seems ungrounded and its beige interior comes to stand in for the border between sea and land. The lack of an occupant also gives the image a kind of lifelessness and we are left to compare the superficial qualities of the interior of the car with the impossibly deep and inaccessible depths below the surface of the water. This contraction and expansion of space between the car’s limited interior and the great expanse of the ocean serves to give the image–otherwise indistinguishable from any automobile advertisement–a sinister quality. Far from detracting from the image’s power, these slightly incongruous elements–specifically the lighting and grounding–give the image its ambiguous power. Introduced into the most innocuous and bland of commercial forms, these sinister elements serve as a kind of visual slang–as if Massey has learned to curse in the language of car ads. Much like Bethune-Leamen’s inability to say “the way I are,” the image resists an easy reading by slightly altering the grammar of representation through awkward combination.
Kelly Jazvac’s Deflationary Club (2008) and Slump Block (2008) also disrupt the language of advertising. Yet, while Massey’s Pink Dawn subtly recapitulated the content of car ads, Jazvac’s work goes after the form of representation itself. Made of vinyl salvaged from an advertising signage manufacturer, Jazvac’s sculptures take on the very materiality of advertisements. By re-sticking, folding, cutting and draping the discarded vinyl, Jazvac translates a two-dimensional material geared to communicating its subject as efficiently and easily as possible into an illegible three-dimensional object. These formal interventions into the material of advertising efface the ad’s original utility for communication, retaining only its seductive surface in wrinkled and droopy form. This reconfiguration and disruption of communication is essentially what was at stake in the conception of slang presented in The Way I Are.