Painting with WordsYesterday, a friend commented regarding what she termed "poorly executed art" requiring an extensively long title in order for the work to have any meaning to anyone other than the artist. I know what she means. Having just come back from the Ohio State Fair Fine Arts Exhibit a few nights ago, I saw an interesting trend, that while it may not be altogether new, seems to be becoming more prevalent. That is the use of written commentary as a part of the artwork, often on the mat, such as with a photo, or right in the midst of the artwork itself. I even saw one painting in which a sort of metal flange protruded from below and behind the frame with words about the painting on it. Traditionalist would label this work as somehow "lame" in that it needs words to get its point across. But then there are artists such as Jenny Holzer whose art uses only words.
Personally, I see this type of thing as similar to "mixed media" in which an artist chooses those methods and means which best convey his or her theme. My thinking is that if words are most conducive to putting across what the artist wants to say, then that should be the artistís prerogative, both in choosing them and using them to augment his or her composition. Where does it say a painter can't be a writer? If that were the case, I'd be in trouble, even though I seldom use words with my images. There was a time when, at art shows, I used to post next to each painting a paragraph or two similar to what I use now next to my work on my Web sites. I considered it smart marketing rather than part of the artwork though. I use to give the card to the buyer to put in the back of the painting however, sort of an artist's statement to accompany each individual work.
Of course words and art go way back together, as in illustrated manuscripts and various Books of Hours in medieval times. More recently, the art of the comic strip would be a good example. We all know what Lichtenstein did with that. In fact, he was not the only Pop artist to play with words. Recall Robert Indiana's Love painting, sculpture, and stamps for instance. Picasso used newsprint in his work, or even painted words and letters, and going back even further than that, Toulouse-Lautrec employed all manner of words in his painted posters. Of course we're talking here about the fuzzy border between graphic design and "serious" painting, but as with all borders, they are manmade and intended to be crossed and crossed again. So, is it a deficiency in the artwork that it demands words as a means of augmenting the message, or merely a form of mixed media? I suppose it depends somewhat on the individual piece, but to my way of thinking, if the words fit, use them.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
10 August 1999