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Islip Art Museum


Messaging With Text, but Without Electronics

I came to the "Text Messaging" exhibition currently at the Islip Art Museum expecting dreary word-based conceptual art. I was largely wrong.

Jon Bocksel's 'Where House' and Jiri Kolar's 'Lice, Hunger, Endless Fatigue' WORD PLAY Jon Bocksel's "Where House" and Jiri Kolar's "Lice, Hunger, Endless Fatigue" are featured in the exhibition "Text Messaging."

The curator, Karen Shaw, has done a marvelous job of finding artists whose work overcomes one of the central failings of this type of work: the material result is often subservient to the idea, resulting in art that is difficult to enjoy. In the worst cases, the art viewing experience is more akin to reading than looking.

This is not to say that all of the 13 exhibitors in "Text Messaging" are mindful of aesthetics, for some of them continue to treat art as a branch of linguistics. Thomas Zummer's "(Untitled) Essay" (2008), a philosophical treatise that questions the nature of art and is written on potatoes, doesn't offer much to look at. It is just hard work to read.

It is also not terribly original. This project is related to 1970s text-based, theory-laden conceptual art like Lawrence Weiner's word installations or the works of the British group Art and Language. I find this stuff enervating.

There is, not surprisingly, a great deal of word collage here. Jiri Kolar, the late Czech poet and artist, made collages using letters cut from newspapers and magazines, or drawn and painted on paper. He's an odd inclusion, given that the rest of the works are by living artists, most of them American. He used language for purely visual or aesthetic means of expression; the letters do not form recognizable words. They are little more than abstract signs.

Tamar Cohen's silkscreen collages stand out for their color and beauty, the artist ripping apart old books - everything from comics and encyclopedias to children's books in a variety of languages - so that she can silkscreen abstract patterns over individual pages, which she then reassembles into colorful collages. The final arrangements are purely formal, based on an intuitive sense of style, color, content and scale.

Collage often involves a reassigning of meaning. Mac Premo's "Seeing Seeing" (2008), a mixed-media assemblage, employs appropriated media imagery and personal photographs in stop-action animation to raise questions about the relationship of self to society, and the meaning and uses of words and objects - familiar conceptual fare.

Word paintings are also popular. Jon Bocksel's delicate gouaches appropriate and combine words that he sees around him in daily life - one work is called "Where-House" (2008), for example. His source materials include newspaper headlines, graffiti and all kinds of signage, the words combined in such a way as to evoke social issues like poverty and class consciousness.

Mr. Bocksel's gouaches ask you to both look and read at the same time. Other works here demand the same, like Ken Aptekar's painted copies of famous paintings overlaid with text. His works are about the ways in which words interact with images, guiding and misleading us. Sometimes they even poke fun at the search for meaning in art: Emblazoned across "Not Just About a Few Words" (2006), a seascape showing a broad sky, are the words, "Not just about a few words dropping out of the sky."

Within the tradition of text-based painting, this is art at its most conceptual, in that words are treated as just another material, like a tube of paint.

Long-Bin Chen also treats language as an art material, though with very different results. He carves into stacks of discarded books to create delicately beautiful figurative sculptures.

Mr. Chen's "Guan Ying Flower Crown" (2008), an exquisitely rendered Buddha's head cut from a pile of Chinese books, is the show's standout. Not only is it appealing to look at, but it references one of the most important art world issues of our time - cultural property, specifically the removal of Buddhist statuary from across Asia for sale to Western museums and private collections. This is a powerful work.

But generally the art here leaves viewers to construct their own meanings; or, more precisely, to find the meaning that resides in the relationship between viewer and object. That, in some ways, is the overall message to be construed from all this text.

—By Benjamin Genocchio
New York Times, September 26, 2008