Kenneth Goldsmith + Graham Gillmore: Whose Words?|
by Debra Bricker Balken
If the use of language in visual art has acquired a bad rap-shaded
by the weighty utterances of many Conceptual and Post-Conceptual
artists-then the work of Graham Gillmore and Kenneth Goldsmith
emerges as a relieving antidote. Composed of a mix of quirky texts
derived from varied sources such as Iyrics for popular music,
the internet, tabloids, newspaper headlines, advertising, novels,
jokes, theoretical tracts and their own diaries and notebooks,
both artists have reinvigorated a moribund, or at least tired,
genre of art. Through similar strategies but differing formal
means and aesthetic results, these two artists have approached
language as a corporeal entity, a medium with a distinct physicality
that generates random (rather than fixed) meaning and its own
In Gillmores drawing "The Basic Idea," for example,
fragmented, partial and sometimes complete sentences that the
artist has either composed, appropriated or altered are splayed
in descending fashion on vintage ledger paper that retains entries
from the accounts of some elusive, bygone business. One column
of text that Gillmore has superimposed on this used paper reads:
"The general feeling of this piece is more or less consistent
with or parallel to roughly speaking that thing that I am attempting
to render;" another states: "Some semblance of meaning
generally speaking of exactly that thing I am trying to say..."
While this overlay of offhanded psycho-babble on now meaningless
factual information, adds to the sense of indeterminacy and chance
that informs all of Gillmore's work, the seeming chaos is contained
through a number of structural devices.
Gillmore has separated and ordered his scattered descriptions
within biomorphic shapes or "thought balloons"' in alternating
red, blue and green colors. The resemblances of these colored
patterns to female genitalia, to fallopian tubes and ovarles,
is not coincidental. Gillmore's clusters of language and bulbous
forms are purposefully eroticized, intended to evoke the female
body, the locus both of male sexual fantasy and creativity. But
these gendered groupings of text-taken venously from Harlequin
romance novels, porn magazines, popular music (that Gillmore himself
has written), literature (titles and lines from Oscar Wilde and
Choderlos de Laclos run through some of these works) as well as
his own journals and musings-operate more on a metaphoric level,
alluding to the ultimately fragmented and sometimes disconnected
nature of human experlence. Gillmore has been quick to state that
he doesn't want his "work to be about gender politics or
fifties design. I'm looking for a more authentic subject matter,
and that subject matter for me is how human beings relate and
don't relate to each other."'
While the sound bites and colloquial discourse that make up Gillmore's
drawings and paintings have a familiar, even aphoristic ring-ubiquitous
spins on failed seductions and vulnerable emotional states-their
usage is common and pervasive enough that the artist is able to
concretize his texts as physical objects. Gillmore has admitted
that he is "more interested in the way the words look than
how they sound" His paintings, in particular, reinforce the
material, corporeal dimension of his work. For instance in "Tara,"
a work of oil and enamel on masonite, the free-floating, disjunctive
combinations of sayings such as "A R closes the biggest deal
of his life. R accidentally opens up another can of worms"
are gouged into the wood, unsettling the translucent, sensous
surfaces of these paintings, while endowing each area of text
with its own distinct physical identity.
Kenneth Goldsmith's drawings, by contrast, dispense with the (pop)
psychology and familair emotion of Gillmore's work while similarly
pursuing text as a visual subject. His five drawings included
here are composed of cut letters that form words, sentences and
passages from Fidget, a multimedia performance which grew
out of Goldsmith's collaboration with Theo Bleckmann for The Whitney
Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, New York this past June.
Goldsmith's libretto for Fidget consists of the transcription
of tape recorded descriptions of every movement made by his body
during a twelve hour period. The text of these descriptions is
strikingly terse and clinical. At 12:00 PM, for example, Goldsmith
recorded: "Breathe while grasping. Elbow out. Hand down.
Pour coffee. Elbow down. Hand up. Back on back. Hands on arms
of chair slide back. Arms stretches. Grasps milk. Elbow down.
Elbow up. Elbow down. Arms stretch. Elbow down. Elbow on chair.
Chair of elbow. Hand on hand. Legs cross...
Stripped of rhetorical features such as adjectives, adverbs and
qualifying phrases, Goldsmith's text for Fidget, ironically, manages
to convey something of the anxiety and disequilibrium he eventually
experiences during this marathon self-performance. The body, as
Goldsmith reveals in this work, is a constantly fidgeting mechanism.
And, when language is employed to describe its ceaseless movements
and activity, it assumes its own sensate traits and materiality.
If Gillmore's work relies upon unleashing aspects of his subjectivity,
then Goldsmith's drawing by contrast is based entirely on observation,
emptied of emotion and expression. The structure that he imposes
on his work by delimiting the length of each sentence results
in a highly controlled, even conventionalized format. Moreover,
these compact, tidy descriptions-unlike Gillmore's seemingly unedited
texts which hover randomly in an amphorous space-exist on clean,
white (and sometimes colored) sheets of paper. Although cut by
hand, the letters here appear to have been mechanically made,
a characteristic that also adds to the sense of anonymity and
near elimination of the artist's voice.
Goldsmith's work also draws on a mix of popular and high-brow
sources. The literary inventions folded into the writings of James
Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett clearly exist in the
background of these drawings, suggesting novel syntactical arrangements
and grammatical devices. But while Fidget is drawn entirely
from tape recorded descriptions, unlike some of Goldsmith's preceding
pieces, such as 73 Poems, Soliloquy and the manuscript
for his book No 111 2 7 93 - 7.22 96-which combine colloquial
aphorisms, lines from popular songs and advertising copy along
with evocations from books by Joyce and other literary figures-debased
references and narrative twists nonetheless still occupy a revealing
place in this work. In the last hour (22:00PM) of this day of
verbal documentation, the artist becomes drunk, a reaction to
the unnerving effects of this routinized process. Goldsmith's
speech degenerates into a jumble of incoherent sounds that are
configured in sentences such as "wollawS. TcartnoC. DnirG.
xaler sway. wollawS. pil fo cra gniwollof tel ot htuom fo edis
thgir morf gnivom pil reppu ssorcs snir eugnoT Eyelids close."
But even these scrambled words, with all their suggestive chaos,
become interestingly tidied, canalized into either clipped sentences
or monosyllables placed in a clean, undifferentiated visual space.
Deprived of explicit meaning, these letters, set in relief against
the same colored or white background, acquire the attributes of
a body, a work of sculpture with its own physicality (In the Applet
version of Fidget on the web, these sentences and words
are set in motion, a feature that likens the computer to the body)
Goldsmith has noted that "one of the occupational hazards
of being a text artist is that your work is going to look like
everyone else's-there are only 26 forms that you can use."
It becomes almost impossible, then, given these finite means to
produce what Goldsmith refers to as a "visually original
statement." But if anonymity is one of the outgrowths of
employing the alphabet, then Goldsmith also knows that "the
art world is lazy in terms of reading the art world wants a new
visual kick. It's annoying."
But however depersonalized these drawings seem, Goldsmith, like
Gillmore, has redirected the endgame strategies of many artists
who utilized text in the 1970s and 1980s. While stripped of literary
embellishment- at least in his Fidget series-Goldsmith's drawings
are ironically elegant, what with these word formations alluding
to a metaphoric corporeal presence. Similarly, Gillmore's paintings
and drawings are inherently aesthetic, however cheesy his material,
lost as these texts are in a colored liquid space. And while different
modernist traditions are tapped by each artist-Joyce, Stein, Beckett,
Cage and Concrete Poetry in the case of Goldsmith; Surrealism,
the Beats, and Graffiti are precedents for Gillmore-certain areas
of commonality, especially Dada, in addition to popular culture
establish correspondences between the two. But more importantly,
their insistence that language is basically material (rather than
ephemeral) connects the concerns of Goldsmith and Gillmore, a
link that few contemporary artists have explored.