Peninsula Art Space | September 4 – October 5, 2014
Francesca Capone’s recent solo exhibition, Oblique Archive, is a meditation on the nature of language as it is increasingly unmoored from the physical realm of paper and set adrift in our digital landscape. Capone uses words and sentences as if they were found objects. She uproots them from their native, literary context and, using office tools such as the scanner and the copy machine, repurposes these linguistic elements to generate new meaning. The sum total of her efforts created a Babel-like space where one might recognize the building blocks of language though the literal content was obscured beyond comprehension.
Capone is an M.F.A. student at Brown University, and all of her source materials come from the library of this revered institution. In six works on canvas titled “Oblique Archive,” she transcodes words written by Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, Aram Saroyan, Augusto de Campos, Jenny Holzer, and John Cage into slurred and slanted lines of text. Capone placed the original pages along the bed of a scanner to create her distortions, but the scanning process created an equally arresting quality that is less about form than color. The scanner reproduced the books’ black ink in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—the shades of our color printing process. If you can imagine a page of text shot through a prism, then you’re close to what Capone has created.
The Oblique Archive works are presented in two formats: the upright and horizontally oriented rectangles traditionally designated “portrait” and “landscape.” The “landscape” format is more interesting as it also approximates the look of a scroll, thereby incorporating another, older medium of linguistic transcription. In “Oblique Archive V: Jenny Holzer, Augusto de Campos,” (2014) Capone jags the page rather heavily, creating a visual warble that calls to mind the peaks and valleys of electrocardiography. It is as if, in her transformation of the language, she is also taking its pulse. In her use of standard office equipment to create visual art out of lexical rudiments, one is reminded of the work of Wade Guyton, who produces paintings by working canvas through an ink jet printer.
The other major series, a collection of works on paper, was created using a copy machine. For the Facsimile Compression pieces, the artist copied page after page of a given writer’s work until the words piled up into dense and dark rectangles of ink. One thinks automatically of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist “Black Square” from just about a century ago, as well as of Richard Serra’s heavy-looking drawings. A big difference here is that Capone’s hand is relatively indiscernible; her black is smooth all over, as only a mechanical printer can produce. The most successful piece is “Facsimile Compression: Why Write? Paul Auster” (2014), which left trace amounts of text legible, teasing the viewer into attempting to decipher Auster’s sentences. The scraps one can read make little sense, but here, an act of obfuscation seems to be taking place as opposed to being relegated to the past tense.
Placed in the center of these dark, inky icons on a clear Plexiglas plinth sits a copy of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, fully dyed in CMYK colors. The work calls to mind the Rainbow books of Tauba Auerbach, which are based on the RGB color model. Capone’s piece has a very literal title, “Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary CMYK” (2014). The great book of words sat open to rather appropriate bookend entries: “indirect labor” and “Indo-European languages.” Capone notes in the press release that this work alludes to the irrelevance of printed reference books. Of course it is maximally efficient to type in a word and have its definition immediately on screen, but what’s lost is the discovery of other words in the search. The question Capone’s colored dictionary seems to pose is whether, or to what extent, it is helpful to trade quick answers for slow efforts?
The capstone of the show hangs in the window— “Touching Language/Hand Scan Hansjörg Mayer” (2014). A tapestry of cotton and rayon, this piece was the most thoughtful homage to language, if any of the works could be so called. In four vertical strips images of hands and letters comingle. At the top, the hands are positioned as if at rest on a keyboard, with the letters appearing in qwerty format across the fingers. Scanning downwards, the hands are presented in profile, as if still typing, and the letters begin to disperse. Finally, the hands are shown engaged in an act of sign language, with letters multiplied and bunched together like hundreds of pieces of movable type swept into a pile.
Hansjörg Mayer was a titan in the field of concrete poetry and publishing. He worked with Dieter Roth to produce a number of books and perhaps did more than any other publisher to experiment with the visual dynamics of the book form and bookmaking. In this way, he is a genuine touchstone for what Capone is trying to accomplish. Another historical antecedent might be Henri Michaux, who was a pioneer of abstracting text in painting and drawing.
The tactility of “Touching Language” and the way it brings the loom onto the same working plane as scanners and copy machines makes it unique and oddly equalizing. It points to the ultimate fact that within the communicative forest of signs and signifiers, language, like art, can have an arresting physical presence, even when it can’t be easily understood.
CHARLES SCHULTZ is a writer based in New York City.