Text-Based Art is Now Here (or is it No Where?)

November 25, 2013

Up to now I’ve paid about zero attention to text-based art. But in the New Yorker magazine, their art writer Peter Schjeldahl recently expounded at length on Christopher Wool, whose text-based work rated an exhibition in the Guggenheim museum (which I have not seen, and I admit to never before knowingly seeing any of Mr. Wool’s paintings in any form, book or original, or even hearing his name).

Schjeldahl declares in his first sentence, that “Like it or not, Christopher Wool, now fifty-eight, is probably the most important American painter of his generation.” Wow! Good thing he includes the word ‘probably.’ Schjeldahl continues: “Wool’s work consists primarily of dour, black-and-white pictures of stenciled words, in enamel, usually on aluminum panels; decorative patterns made with incised rollers; and abstract, variously piquant messes, involving spray paint and silkscreens.” Additional phrases resound throughout the full-length review:…“the….harshness of Wool’s rigor; …authentic, bracing, and even, on occasion, blissful. ;…He merged the anonymous aggression of graffiti with the stateliness of formal abstract painting.; His works ace the crude test that passes for critical judgment in the art market: they look impeccable on walls today…” Such exuberant, laudatory stimuli drew my attention to this art form, for lack of a better word.

Personally, I view textart as another offshoot of two-dimensional conceptualism, as dished out onto canvas, thus emulating a painting. My pitiful historical knowledge takes me back to the surrealists, or maybe the Dadists, for the first textart. Maybe it wasn’t first, but it was my first encounter. They at least did it with tongue firmly in cheek.

Or maybe the ancient graffiti one can see defacing Roman, even Greek and Egyptian architecture was an early form of textart. This takes us directly to another philosophical morass: is tagging textart? Let’s not go there.

Much of our mental paradigm as a modern human involves word-thinking. The textual form is a visual derivative of the word. Going from word (spoken) to word (imaged) involved a million-year leap from an auditory experience to a visual one. You could argue that the existence of the written word is largely responsible for the predominance of visual stimuli as the primary communication medium today. It wasn’t always this way. Pre-literate cultures spoke, sure, and saw of course, but they didn’t derive their main cultural thrust from these cute little devils, written words. Think of the written word as one of human society’s first successful attempt to mass-standardize thought patterns, right after religion.

But one of the delightful things about painting and sculpture, not the textart kind, is its potential to downshift our brains into the primitive mental world of visual thinking. It’s interesting, fun, even joyous sometimes to get out of word-think and into vis-think. It’s a throwback, certainly, to thinkvisually, but many people like to do it, at least for brief periods of time. You probably do too, if you’re reading this.

But pure vis-think is slipping away. Maybe that’s why textart is becoming popular. Or is it just a dead zone in the artist’s mind that gets filled with words when nothing else is happening, visually? It’s kind of a middle ground, a ‘taint,’ that ‘taint words and ‘taint images. It has a direct cultural connection, though, since words are our primary medium, and there is the opportunity to create dissonance by juxtaposing the words used. But Bill Burroughs already went there with his ‘cut-up’ literary technique, and textart can’t improve on literature for psychic dissonance. It’s also a cheap technique and to me, ultimately boring. A textart painting would last maybe a day on my wall. It doesn’t give me anything I don’t already have. My head is already filled with too many words.

I can see why textart might be popular. It doesn’t demand anything of the viewer. All the necessary references are already burned into the viewer’s mental database, assuming the viewer can read. Textart is like Duchamp’sready-mades, minus the fun.

So let’s look at a textart picture from the viewpoint of somebody who cannot read! In this case the imagery is puzzling. The illiterate viewer can see a pattern in the shapes – some of those jiggly things we call ‘letters’ are likely repeated – but the overall design is rigid. The letters conform to a strict layout, horizontal and vertical, that is usually gridlike and not very interesting. The ‘letters’ and the combined forms (the ‘words’) don’t make for a very dynamic visual experience. Lacking the reference point of an education (at least enough to learn to read), you quickly lose interest.

Sure, there are some artists who have played around with words in cute ways, like Wayne White who buys thrift shop landscapes and paints clever, 3D-looking words on them. (Have you seen the documentary on Wayne – Beauty is Embarrassing? It’s pretty cool, even if his self-promotion is a bit tiresome.) I quite like Wayne’s textart paintings, for a little while, anyway. At least he’s imaginative with them, and doesn’t get overly dippy in his justifications. So yeah, they’re fun.

And just like another artist’s plagiarized trademark reproductions of iconic American consumer products is flagrantly cultural, textart can’t escape being thoroughly cultural. This automatically enhances the ‘cuddle-factor’ by making sure a huge slice of the potential audience can instantly identify with it. You don’t need to waste time trying to crash-land on a different mental planet. It’s the opposite of abstract. I’m not endorsing abstraction, far from it, but textart can’t get much farther away from it if it tried. It’s basically an older, even more pervasive, kind of photography, known as typography. If you want good textart, you only have to check out early medieval books, before that Gutenberg fellow got his hands on the levers of popular culture. Those monastic calligraphers were without peer.

I must admit, in my copious spare time over some years I’ve experimented with a kind of symbolicized textart. However, my words and letters contain little, if any, cultural baggage, unless perhaps you are a proto-scientist from the 17th century. They are a set of trans-cultural symbols from long-ago centuries whose meanings were once influential in certain scholarly circles, but which today are beyond obscure – I’m referring to the symbols of alchemy. This lengthy set of newly stylized alchemical symbols (I’ve designed, but not painted, some 200 so far) would have been recognizable to, say, Isaac Newton or Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim). The symbolology of alchemy was perhaps the most trans-cultural of early ‘western’ communications systems – it derived from sources in ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece, the Arab world in its prime, and the descendents of Roman culture as it splintered into its eventual European identities.

The reason I had to create my own set is that the symbols are obscure, invariably hand-written (scribbled is more accurate) and thus highly mutable. However, as universal shapes found deep in the human unconscious, they are hard to beat. Below are some examples.


Sigil of Mercury


Alumin Ulfin



Veride Aeris


Seal of the Angel Mars






Sal Ammonicum