Non-text: An Exhibition of Text as Image
Letters and words operate visually as well as semantically. Strictly speaking, both are abstract visual forms that represent spoken (or written) verbal forms. In fact, scholars who study ancient alphabets believe that western alphabetic characters originated as pictograms—simple images that represent ideas or things—that eventually evolved into a set of abstract symbols representing the sounds of spoken language. Yet in Western culture, our awareness of this image-based ancestry has been lost, and letterforms and words typically are understood as transparent carriers of verbal content.

We chose “Non-Text” as a title for this show because we wanted to activate the possible meanings of context and nonsense. We also wanted a neologism that challenges transparent meaning. The work in “Non-Text” challenges the Western cultural assumption that textual content is necessarily the primary and most efficient communication medium; this art wittingly or unwittingly uses textual media in ways that obscure written language’s ability to communicate. Each piece employs text, typography, or writing to create aesthetic forms that express visual meaning rather than merely allowing words to function as invisible verbal transmitters.

Reading their statements, it becomes clear that the “Non-Text” artists are challenging conventional narrative, communication, and reading practices. In “Flank” and “Fardel,” John Adelman reworks excerpts from the 1979 Webster’s Unabridged Encyclopedic Dictionary until they are read as shape and texture. Like Adelman, in “An Exquisite Morass” Liese Zahabi reconfigures Google news into dramatic kaleidoscopic patterns that challenge how we access information. Brian Kim Stefans’ poetry-in-motion piece “Suicide in an Airplane,” likewise reshapes “the news” to create a playfully irreverent story.

Caroline Bergvall’s “Philomena (Working the Line),” Charles Bernstein’s “Veil,” and Bernstein and Susan Bee’s collaboration “Disfrutelos” are word-gestures on paper that put pressure on how we comprehend amalgams of visual and literary narrative. Christopher Baker’s piece, “It’s Been a Long While Since I Last Wrote,” weighs the protracted permanence of handwriting against the fast-paced fleetingness of digital information. The material and formal qualities of Kyle Daevel’s “Detroit Alphabet” and Todd Childers’ “Ironically Digital Type” convey the artists’ accounts of Detroit’s shrinking population and the visual continuity of typographic forms, respectively. Keetra Dixon’s “Throughout” and “The Great Illusion” embody what Dixon calls “the flick” between clarity and confusion.

Lance Winn’s “Three Views of Nothing,” “Flood,” and “Life on Mars” present typography as topography, while Ryan Molloy and Jim Steven’s “writing wall” builds textual content from architectural materials and structures. Seth Ellis’s “Meanwhile” and Amanda Katz’s “Azimuth” each encourage viewers to participate in the meaning-making process—the former through physical manipulation of the piece by viewers, and the latter through viewer immersion into the projection of the work. In “Short Words with Tower,” “Idle Tower,” and “Blind Side Tower,” Justin Quinn demonstrates the complex communication that can be generated using a series of E’s.

Each of the letters in our alphabet (the so-called Roman alphabet) has a distinctive, recognizable shape that allows it to function as part of a communication system. But letterforms and the words they create have visual qualities beyond these recognizable shapes—curved parts, straight lines, open areas, color, texture, stroke width, size, proportion, and visual weight. These qualities can vary dramatically, and the letters and words they shape make meaning in concert with the visual contexts in which the letters and words function. The work in “Non-Text” propels viewers into situations in which letters and words unabashedly become visual experiences.