Language and LACMA: poetry and art

We have many kinds of language, both verbal and visual. Laurie Anderson once sang words written by William S. Burroughs in his book, The Ticket That Exploded, "Language is a virus from outer space." The American Communication Journal notes that "A virus operates autonomously, without human intervention." Language as lies and propaganda can travel like a virus. But I don't believe language is a virus. With intervention, language responds to our era and our changing culture, and it turns out to be flexible. Every year we add new words to the dictionary, and occasionally we retire archaic ones.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)

I was in Los Angeles last week and went to LACMA, primarily to see two exhibitions, one was Robert Rauschenberg: The 1/4 Mile and the other was Outliers: American Vanguard Art, a time when "avant-garde artists and outliers intersected." The wall text for Outliers reported that this artwork used to be referred to as "Outsider" art, a term given by those trained or within the art world to those who were "untrained" or "self-taught," as though to marginalize them, separate their art from all art. The text continued by suggesting we re-term what we call this art to "outlier" and make it from a position of power and strength, to use current language. I'm still unsure about using "out" the word; it seems at odds with inclusion. But we have better connotations with outlier, I suppose, since Malcolm Gladwell made it a popular term, referring to successful people.

What got grouped, then, as outlier art, seemed lively, to me. Some seemed raw or less restrained than the conventional rectangle, some featured obsessive marks or highly detailed objects or patterns or colors, some was quite simplified. A few of the artists' works from the show I responded to are: playful and colorful sculptures by David Butler (1898-1997),

Steamship with Big Anchor

constructions from paper soot, saliva, wheat paste, and string by James Castle (1899-1977),

Untitled (Bird, Bird, Duck)

and drawings by Martín Ramírez (1895-1963).

Untitled (Trains and Tunnels)

The quilts originally made popular as "Gee's Bend" quilts, also inspirations to me, were presented in the very last room. I love this short video, when Mary Lee Bendolph and Louisiana Bendolph worked with Paulson Bott Press in 2005. There's a beautiful book of them: The Quilts of Gee's Bend. I remember being excited when I first saw them in the early 2000s, that quilts didn't have to be symmetrical and exacting, that they could dance.

Mary Lee Bendolph (b. 1935)
Blocks, Strips, Strings and Half Squares (2005)

Rosie Lee Thompkins (1936-2006)
String (1985)

Annie Mae Young (1928-2013)
Blocks and Strips (1970)
This is one of my favorites.

Up a floor of the museum, you might consider Rauschenberg's art as outlier as he did not believe in the hierarchy of materials (a tin can was no less an art material than oil paints, for example). I have written about him previously, here.

Asked what exhibit I had seen at LACMA, I first began with the outsider/outlier explanation, and my concern about the use of "out," to which the person I was talking with said, somewhat impatiently, "Words don't mean the same things anymore." I responded that we don't go backward, we go forward. Language is a reflection of culture and values, and it changes as we learn new things. Like technology, we keep going forward, we can't go back. Ultimately, unlike a virus, we can make decisions and control our language with the goal of a healthier society.

I'm reading some wonderful poetry by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. I first encountered her work a couple weeks ago at an exhibit at San Francisco Public Library, in which she had collaborated with Thomas Ingmire, a calligrapher and artist, on a book with one poem (shown below) that ultimately became the title of the collection, My rice tastes like the lake. She, too, is concerned with language. Her words, his interpretive painted letters.

"There are words you should not use. / There are stories you cannot tell."

In another book, Rules of the House, in the poem "Body as what is remembered," Dhompa writes, "What comes out of your mouth is what you become. And if you don't speak, that too is worth noting."

Language is part of us, a part of our bodies; it shapes us, and we shape it. Flexible and changeable. And what we say or do not say, how we say it or do not say it, is important.

Rauschenberg book sculpture and visitor ; )


Bea said…
I thought the outlier exhibit was a stretch to try and make their points and connections.
Alisa said…
Curators sometimes see things that aren't really there, but they can also introduce another way of seeing. (If they do it well.) Or at least get you to think about or question things. Successful? Not successful? Not always clear.