Oehlen, Pendleton, Pope.L, Sillman
“Language is the most useless and useful material that I can think of in relationship to the act of painting. There are of course numerous ways in which it can be used in a formal sense. But language also serves as a utilitarian tool in social and political spaces. So it allows the space of the painting to be in contact with different kinds of material and conceptual realities that it might otherwise ignore.” —Adam Pendleton
This group exhibition was initiated by Adam Pendleton as an exploration of artistic languages. Some of the works include words, but above all it’s about ideas, processes, and technologies that feed into the concept of painting. We see the computer paintings that Albert Oehlen began in the early 1990s, using a primitive graphics program to find out what pictorial gesture the machine would offer, then overpainting the digital drawing transferred to canvas. Adam Pendleton buries typographic fragments and broken lines in his Black Dada Drawings, engaging with the tradition of the black monochrome while using silkscreen to keep the dense brushwork and spray paint at a remove. Pope.L’s small assemblages on eraser also reference the monochrome by invoking the name of Robert Ryman. Yet the artist follows subtle color schemes while merging objects and phrases. Amy Sillman’s grid of abstract Bathtub Drawings was actually created in a bathtub: signs and forms, compositions and fragments in a state of continuous making. To the artist, painting is less a language than an escape from language, as she says in her conversation with Pendleton and art historian Isabelle Graw, discussing the possibilities and the possible meanings of the medium.
THERE ARE WAYS AROUND
Adam Pendleton: I think we could say that painting is able to manipulate or disrupt various languages and the realities that come with them, using modes and methods that might not be available in other fields or other media. Oehlen explores the limitations of early painting software, and while these paintings do not display words, they do address painting as “alphabetized” in digital media, broken down into a very limited set of discrete, elementary marks. He mixes these marks, very generatively, back into the realm of the analog. Pope.L, on the other hand, displays words in states of transformation and erasure; he is very interested in wordplay, but in a specific kind of wordplay that is only feasible in painting, where it can be written, overwritten, and erased by hand, and where each of these operations can be recorded on the surface of the work and in the title of the work.
Amy Sillman: My gut reaction is that painting is not a language. While I share with Adam this absolute love of language as the most useful and useless material, I always want to hold onto the idea that there is a different realm, which is not linguistic. I’m not a scholar, so I can’t point to the right source that will help me insist on that. But as a person who both writes essays and makes paintings, I feel really deeply—and I don’t know how to say it other than to say it emotionally—that when you’re dealing with the blank void of artistic practice, you are in a sense working away from language. I think there’s a place away from language.
Adam: That’s interesting. I actually wholly agree with what you just said. But for me, I think it’s important to mention that language is a blank void. It is not a space of clarity, or of meaning. You could even say that it is the black hole of the dubious desire to mean, or to make meaning.
Isabelle Graw: When you, Adam, spoke about language allowing for a contact with the material world, I was thinking of the long history of language entering modernist painting, starting with Cubism, or maybe even much earlier with Cézanne’s portrait of his father, where a newspaper with words was painted into the picture. It is not only the exterior world that enters painting via language. Even more: As soon as text is integrated, the old modernist idea of painting as a clearly delineated essence gets disrupted. I sympathize with Amy’s insistence on there being something beyond language especially considering that the incorporation of words has been an aesthetic convention for a long time. Think only of artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Ed Ruscha, or of Christopher Wool’s stuttering words. But when I look at your Bathtub Drawings, Amy, I can’t help thinking that a kind of rhetorics—or let’s call it a repertory of forms and gestures—gets displayed. It’s not language in the narrow sense of the term, but something like a pictorial alphabet.
Amy: Over the past few years I have been reading the history of the alphabet. And when I wasn’t reading about the history of the alphabet, I was thinking in language. But I also want to get out of that, always. I’ve been wondering: How can we see language as a form of alterity, and then work across that boundary? How can we enjoy the structuring principles of language and then remove ourselves from them? These questions are, I think, deeply embedded in Adam’s work. I know we both love certain kinds of very active, abstract poetics, for example, which materialize the wish to destroy or transgress regular rhetorics and regular letters and regular organizations. I’m always really interested in a body place that’s not rooted in language. I feel deeply that the kinds of silences that we experience emotionally when we experience things are not linguistic.
Isabelle: While I am not a fan of Lacan’s totalizing claims I was always intrigued by his proposition that even the unconscious is structured like a language. Because if the unconscious is structured like a language, language would be—like the unconscious—something that we can’t control, something that we can’t fully access. You both referred to poetry, Adam talked about language being this black hole—a disorienting place where meaning collapses. I am reminded of an artist like Marcel Broodthaers, a former poet himself, who used poetic language as a structure that both evokes and ambiguates meaning.
Adam: When that word meaning is mentioned I’m always oppositional to it and confused because I never know why it’s deployed. I never know what its purpose is, in the sense that in some strange way I don’t know the purpose of meaning. I can’t really think of anything more frustrating and boring than to be concerned with meaning. I like this notion of a body place that is not rooted in language that Amy suggested—that could be the space of the act of painting, or the space of the painting itself. But I also believe that there can be this body place that is not rooted in meaning—something I find very compelling and necessary. And even ethical. There’s something very destructive about a desire to mean.
In collaboration with Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris | London