Text and art rarely interact with one another in the art world, but University of Wisconsin art professor Fred Stonehouse believes it is possible for the two to intersect.
At a gallery talk held at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Feb 2, the professor offered his feedback and analysis on several pieces in the “Art/Word/Image” exhibition. The exhibit currently on display, includes Stonehouse’s own painting titled “Kilroy-Coq-à-l’Âne, 1999.”
Stonehouse recently led a graduate seminar at UW titled “Word and Image,” which aligns with the exhibition, featuring an array of contemporary art pieces that integrate art with words.
Stonehouse’s discussion focalized around this topic, as he stated his personal interest in the interaction between language, text and art. He delved into the malleability of these different forms, where the boundary between one and the other may become blurred.
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He explained that this concept of text and art is one that withstands time, bringing up his belief that in the past, generally, the public stigmatized the idea of reading art. He also mentioned the complete exclusion of text in art may sometimes present barriers, pointing out the challenge of creating a political art piece without language.
Stonehouse continued to discuss the advantages language can offer art by bringing up his love for storytelling, both in listening to and telling stories. He mentioned his mother was deaf, which created space for other forms of communication outside of standard verbal speech, including lip reading and sign language.
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An environment that embraced visual language prompted Stonehouse to experiment with alternative ways to communicate, which he referred to as “a formal component” of the way he speaks.
In his discussion of his own painting, Stonehouse said that the term surrealist broadly describes his work, in its effect as images are juxtaposed in “strange, unsettling ways.”
His personal implementation of text with images isn’t really meant to be used as an explanation or to convey an overall message behind the piece, but to “spin the narrative of what imagery may mean in another direction.”
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He stated that his combination of the two is “not an equation where one plus one equals two.” Instead, he aims for something innovative or unexpected in the result, which he intends to surprise the viewer.
He also reflected on his individual growth and progression as an artist over time. Before becoming a parent, he held views that he described as black and white, but having children shifted and influenced his perceptions — causing him to feel even the things he thinks he understands cannot be fully grasped or could be wrong.
This idea connected to his painting, “Kilroy-Coq-à-l’Âne, 1999,” because he said, at the time, he used language primarily as a way to hint at or suggest the context of the piece and what was happening in it.
Now, he uses text as “free floating thoughts not attributed to anyone,” which complement the piece and the general idea of it, instead of working to explain the meaning.
After talking about his painting, Stonehouse walked around the gallery space to share his thoughts about several other pieces in the show, including artist John Wilde’s “The D.D. Series #3: Picking Black Raspberries, 1974.”
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This piece is a self-portrait drawing of the artist, framed by paragraphs of text. Stonehouse explained Wilde generated the text by doing an exercise meant to unleash the subconscious by writing as quickly as possible. He then rewrote this content carefully around the drawing.
Stonehouse viewed this particular combination of text-as-image as a potential way to get the viewer to read about his thoughts after initially pulled in by the portrait. Instead, the piece creates two separate things: A drawing and a text.
Stonehouse also discussed artist Ed Ruscha’s screen print, titled “Sin, 1970.” This piece simply depicts three letters: S, I and N from a horizontal orientation, along with a small olive.
Stonehouse described the letters as acting “like sculptures in the work.”
He also talked briefly about artist William Wiley’s piece, “Ecnud, 1975,” which shows two dunce caps parallel to one another with the words, “forget the gift” and “remember the trade” below them.
Stonehouse said although “people tend to think deeply about the way language functions” — especially when used in art — sometimes it is simply used as an artistic device and element, without a necessarily deeper connotation.