Marc Selwyn Fine Art is pleased to announce Signals, a group exhibition of works on paper bringing together six artists who explore the boundaries between drawing, language and concrete poetry. Opening on January 13th, the exhibition is conceived as an open dialogue among artists from different generations who each in their own way stress the material power of language as mark making while blurring the lines between drawing and writing and between the realms of literal meaning and poetic openness.
In the late 1960s Irma Blank (b. 1934; lives and works in Milan) started to practice a kind of “silent writing” in her Eigenschriften or “self-writings” that she began after she moved to Sicily from her native Germany. In this first mature body of work, Blank covered her drawing paper with indecipherable lines that approximated handwriting without constructing any legible words. In hundreds of works executed between 1968 and 1973, the artist moved her hand from left to right across sheets of paper with differing levels of intensity, rhythm, color, and stylistic flair. Falling somewhere in the conceptual space between the practices of drawing and writing while never quite inhabiting either, Blank’s Eigenschriften display a distrust in the meaning of words. Taken together, these drawings are a kind of meditative silent poetry that offer a material record of the interior movement of a life through the physical manifestations of lines in space.
In 1972 the German artist Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt (b. 1932; lives and works in Berlin) discovered the typewriter as a medium and used it as a tool to compose concrete poetry (drawn with the letters, numbers, and punctuation marks of her Erika typewriter), playfully forming geometric shapes and subversive word games that flew under the radar of the state censorship of the East German government. Calling these works “typewritings,” she made carbon copies of her drawings to send to her artistic correspondents across the world (many of whom also lived under totalitarian regimes or dictatorships).
As a monk in the Benedictine order based at Prinknash Abbey in rural Gloucestershire, Dom Sylvester Houédard (b. 1924; d. 1992) was fascinated by the physical forms of words. As a religious scholar, writer, and publisher, Houédard became a fixture in the experimental avant-garde of the 1960s. By the early 1960s, this passion led him to become a pioneer of concrete poetry as he created elaborate typewriter-composed visual poems—which he called “typestracts”—on an Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. Creating highly imaginative forms from hundreds of individual keystrokes, his typestracts used the untapped potential of the Olivetti typewriter as an experimental graphical instrument, forcing the machine outside its ordered comfort zone.
The French artist Guy de Cointet (b. 1934; d. 1983) spent the better part of his career in Los Angeles where he conducted a wide array of experiments with the structure of language in a series of drawings, books, and performances. Fascinated by the malleable character of linguistic meaning (its openness to infinite interpretation), he took the letters, words and spaces of typography as his building blocks. His favorite method was the art of cryptography – systems of transposing language into secret codes. Drawing his titles from passages in books, dialogues in movies, or snatches of overheard conversations, de Cointet’s drawings transposed these fragments of language into cryptographically encoded geometric, calligraphic, or typographic forms. Although the title of each work is always given (and hidden in each drawing) some works are easily deciperhable by the viewer while others are more inscrutable. For de Cointet though, the pleasure of the viewer does not reside in finding the “true” meaning of each drawing (for him there is none) but in the simple pleasure of looking at their forms and the playful act of uncovering words that reveal evocative phrases that are still open to infinite interpretation.
In the trance-like performances and drawings of Sue Tompkins (b. 1971; lives and works in Glasgow) the solidity of language melts before our eyes. Working with evocative words and fragments of speech that she comes across in her everyday life, Tompkins samples, splices and remixes them into spoken and typographic forms that bring together the linguistic materiality of concrete poetry with the anarchic free associations of punk rock lyrics. While known for her live spoken word performances that emphasize the breakdown of language through stuttering, repetition, and interruption, she has also materialized her provisional collisions of words as drawings on newsprint that use the typewriter as a tool to playfully transform language and typographic signs into spatial constellations of sculpted text.
Primarily known as a book designer, Conny Purtill (b. 1969; lives and works in Los Angeles) also lives a parallel life as an artist. Using found paper – specifically the stained and worn pages of printed books – Purtill populates these palimpsest-like surfaces with painstakingly rendered graphite organisms. As the artist meticulously lays down graphite from his pencil in a technique that can make it seem almost liquid, his works coalesce into linear forms that tumble across the page, lines that cascade into knots, and amoeba-like shapes that at times resemble portals to another world. Other works colonize rare art books (especially books by conceptual artists) with marks that repeat from page to page in a kind of non-figurative, non-linguistic semaphore. Purtill’s drawing practice is not one of defacing the page but of embellishing it as if he were a medieval manuscript illuminator for the era of conceptual art.