Sunday, December 18, 2005

Text in Art

As most of you know, I've become very interested over the last year or so in art that works with, or incorporates text. In Seven, I dedicated an entire gallery room to a group of artists working with text in their work. Next year I am taking those artists to an exhibition at the new Greater Reston Arts Center, and I am working now to also do it in a Virginia museum after that.

And speaking of text in art, I've been hearing good things about the exhibition by Rose Folsom at The Mansion at Strathmore Hall.

Folsom's show was a Hot Pick of the Week by the Washington Times.
Meditation Fruit by Rose Folsom
Rose Folsom is an amazing calligrapher who has migrated the art of writing towards the fine arts, period. She writes:

At age five I wanted so much to write that I pestered an older playmate into teaching me. When I was seven, I took apart a little paper umbrella to find a tiny roll of Japanese newspaper inside. As I unrolled it, the magical characters were clearly trying to tell me something, but what? I ran to my parents and was told that only a Japanese person could read what it said. I daydreamed about a little girl my age on the other side of the world who could read and understand the tantalizing text. How I longed to know what it said! Meanwhile, the angular characters, lined up like little soldiers, spoke to me of an exotic world that sparked my imagination. This began a life-long fascination with the written word.
And I am told that the show at Strathmore (which I plan to see next week) offers a show that provides evidence that her fascination has delivered a superb show. C.D. Tansey writes about it:
One thing that impresses itself on the viewer is that the writing is not immediately decipherable... It demands a closer look. There is an attempt to communicate something, but the "written paintings" ask the viewer to actively set out to decipher what is there. We are not the merely passive receivers of the words, but we are asked to participate in a conversation.

Already we are in a different realm than the everyday world of words, which, more and more, are crafted so as to be quickly read and understood. Words have in many cases been reduced in our age to a means to and end. Words are how we understand how to get something done - buying, selling, informing, or getting from one place to another. The more transparent words are, the more useful, seems to be the conventional wisdom.

Words here in this show become not a means to an end, but actually a nexus of mystery and relationship. Relationship is the key word here, because often there is a dialogue going on the painting - a dialogue between two voices. Sometimes the dialogue is humorous, as in "He Said, She Said"; but more often the dialogue points at something more poignant.

In the paintings entitled "Letter to," one can't help but think of Emily Dickinson's "Letters to the World," and implicit is the idea of a soul in an almost heroic attempt at bridging a divide - sending a letter to reach the shores of another soul, almost like a message in a bottle cast into the sea.

This is interesting because in the era of e-mails and instant messaging, it has become true that a hand-written letter has suddenly become a rarity. The hand-written letter in this day and age signals a special care and attention, and a reaching out of a special kind.

Another thought: Just as Emily Dickinson took the metric of the traditional Protestant hymn, and used it as a foundation for a completely original and personal artistic expression - these paintings use the traditional form of calligraphy, and, while staying true to that tradition, charge the writing, the words, with an utterly personal and original meaning.

Another thought: the Protestant "motto," "Sola Scriptura," is here being given a second look. Yes, these are words, but they are also images! From the Cattholic point of view, this makes complete sense, because after all the "Word became FLESH, and dwelt among us." In their being willed into a picture, into a substantiality (of sorts), these word-pictures are a symbol of God's own creative activity. The word is not an abstract thing, but is tied to personal meanings, and personal history, tied to the world, and, even more importantly, tied to God's own ongoing conversation with the world!

And that, finally is what is most powerful about the paintings. Without being too heavy-handed about it, they allude constantly to God's own wish to converse with us - a conversation in which we are not just passive recipients, but in which we must RESPOND. In that conversation, we are caught up in a love, which while essential to our fulfillment, is at the same time an ever-present mystery.
The exhibition goes through December 30, 2005.

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