Text in Art (or, What an unwelcome horse taught me about art)

Horse painting © 1997 J. Thomson, all rights reserved

Ever since my early painting classes as an undergraduate in art school, I have been interested in incorporating text in my work. Using text in contemporary artwork is nothing new, and some artists use text exclusively. I’ve been inspired by the works of Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Cy Twombly, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and the Dada collages of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, to name a few artists who used text in some of their artworks. I am intrigued by the possibility of adding additional layers of meaning to a piece through the use of text. Such uses have the potential to support the main idea of a piece, or contradict it; either usage is valid. The use of text in visual artwork can also serve to make the piece more accessible to the general public.  I think of it as a way of giving the viewer another handle to hold onto when grappling with the piece.

One of my early painting professors, Erin Palmer, offered a critique of a text painting I made as an undergraduate by asking whether the painting could be successful if the text wasn’t readable (ie, if it were in another language, or if it were illegible text).

The painting in question was the result of a collaborative exercise, in which students started a painting, and then swapped with a randomly chosen student who contributed to the painting, and then swapped back again to complete the piece. The rule was that you couldn’t obliterate the other artist’s work, and you had to transform their contribution in some way.

My painting started as an upside-down pentagon-shaped abstract painting (my reference was “subverted domesticity”). The student I was randomly assigned to swap paintings with was an elderly woman who was taking the class as continuing-ed (ie, not for credit), and her paintings tended towards the kind of cute puppies-and-kittens-in-baskets paintings you see in garage sales and terrible calendars. To say I was not happy about this arrangement is an understatement.

On the second week of the assignment, when we gathered to critique the progress of the paintings after the contributions of the second artist, I was horrified to see she had put a very-badly rendered horse’s head right in the middle of my beautiful white abstract painting. I was livid. All of the other pairs of artists had tried to contribute something to their paintings in line with what the original artist had begun, but my “partner” had completely ignored the intention of the piece and instead imposed her own will upon it. The conversation about the painting took up nearly the entire class period, and at the end I was cautioned that part of the assignment was that I was not allowed to obliterate the horse, and yet I had to transform it in some way.

With that miserable set of circumstances, I was challenged to rescue this painting and make it a successful piece in only one week. Obviously, I had to let go of the original idea of an abstract painting. I ended up outlining the horse with gesso squeezed from a ketchup bottle, and layering translucent white over it, turning the horse into a ghost. I also gave the horse a neck and body. I then lettered the background with a story I made up as I painted the letters in… a story in which an unwanted horse unexpectedly appears and utters non-sequiturs, much to the dismay of the artist. But apparently horses know more about art than snakes do. (Full text is quoted below.)

The final critique generated a lot of enthusiastic comments and criticism, and the general consensus was that it was an interesting and successful exercise. The two artists involved in making the piece were not allowed to speak until the end of the period, at which time the only comment the elderly painter had to offer about the piece was that I shouldn’t have hyphenated the last word, “rude”. (She was not happy with the way the piece turned out, suggesting I had ruined her perfectly good painting of a horse, which is about how I felt about my abstract piece, although I was satisfied with it in the end.) Unfortunately, the painting no longer survives, and I’ve only been able to find one blurry snapshot photograph of it, shown here.

This painting exercise taught me to pay attention to (sometimes unwanted) distractions, and not to be afraid to let go of an idea, lest the piece become too precious or overworked. I also learned not to invest too much importance of the piece into the text itself, and that even the text should contribute to the piece’s overall aesthetics.

Horse painting © 1997 J. Thomson, all rights reserved

Sometimes a horse will just walk right into your stable little life, and ask you things like “What’s so great about Art?” Or after taking one bite out of each of your apples, it will say to you “Got any peaches?” Now this horse is an intruder, and its hooves are messing up your carpet, and so you ask “What is it you have to say to me, Horse?” and the horse replies, “Art is not what you think it is. And life is not a stable.” And if you ask the horse “Is Art only commodity, or is Art the free and true expressions of the chosen few in our society?” The horse only stamps its hoof & eats your curtains. And if you say, “Well what do horses know about Art anyway?” The horse says, “More than snakes do.” And then the horse leaves as unexpectedly as it came, and you are left wondering what the horse meant and why it came to you. After a while, you miss the horse—even though it was rude. tweet

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One Response to Text in Art (or, What an unwelcome horse taught me about art)

  1. I really love this piece, thank you for sharing it!

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