Signs of the Times Essay

06/08/2001 - 07/18/2001

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Signs of the Times
Raechell Smith

Signs of the Times 
presents the work of three highly original artists who use text and common-place systems of signage as effective, direct, and powerful methods of presentation and communication. The artists included in this exhibition – Jesse Howard, Jenny Holzer, and Jack Pierson – represent three different generations of message makers. There are obvious similarities among their works, however, there are also easily observed and more complex distinctions in terms of the issues that concern them as artists and as authors. Stylistically and thematically, the work presented in this exhibition represents three unique approaches, reflecting the individual perspective of each artist as well as the time and culture from which the work emerged.

Over the course of the past century, technology has evolved, swiftly transforming the age of industry into the age of information. This powerful shift has, in effect, altered the types of signage we encounter within our physical environment and informs the increasingly critical and complex role that signage plays within our culture. As more information is made accessible and presented for our consumption by way of both old media and new, the sheer pervasiveness of signs that request or demand our attention, that clutter or co-exist within our environment, has increased to an alarmingly noticeable degree. Whether made by hand or machine, whether low-tech, high-tech, or virtual, signs embody information and convey meaning within our increasingly complex, information-laden society.

We easily associate signs with contemporary life as they are encountered within our physical environment each and every day. In an attempt to gain access to information or to discover a form of guidance that will seemingly support or enhance our existence in some way, we frequently search for signs. Depending on our circumstances, we seek, on a practical level, the kind of sign that may indicate, for example, the appropriate route to a specific place or where to park. At times, we also search, in a personal way, for a more symbolic kind of sign that might reveal to us something relevant about our own existence. Sometimes, an epiphany comes in the form of a word or phrase that succinctly describes an emotion or a feeling, or perhaps mirrors or affirms a personal belief, an inner thought, or a particular experience. In their many forms, signs operate on a number of levels and the experience of each recipient can shift and enlarge the meaning of a message.

As a vehicle to support the expression of an idea or an opinion, the use of signage represents a highly practical strategy for these and other artists working with language and text. What makes this choice more resonant and meaningful, however, is the fact that these artists are capitalizing on and, at times, even exploiting the associative power of signs. In borrowing from everyday life this very ordinary and familiar format, the artists create an opportunity, taking full advantage of the inherent power of the written word as they play upon our cultural tendencies to accept, sometimes without question, the information that is presented in such a way.

The placement of these signs, whether in a gallery setting or within the public arena, also plays a significant role in determining the context and meaning of the work. Signs created by Jenny Holzer and Jesse Howard have often been sited as interventions within the public realm, reaching wider, more diverse, and sometimes unsuspecting audiences with the messages they contain. Jack Pierson employs an alternate strategy by creating works composed with the actual elements of public signage that have been reconfigured and aestheticized, imbued with private meaning, and then, reintroduced within a gallery setting to function no longer as a sign, per se, but as art. Prototypes for the work of Jenny Holzer and Jack Pierson can be found in the highly mediated public spaces that are currently a part of our culture. Their commentary, too, elaborates on the social and political views and concerns of their generation’s time in history. In the work created by Jesse Howard between 1953 and 1974, a more historical era is brought to mind, reflecting a very different time and place.

Jesse Howard, a self-taught artist whose signs and sculptures have been collected and exhibited by public institutions around the United States, voices a concern for the harsh and sometimes bitter realities of daily life. The evidence and voice of the individual is apparent here in the hand-painted, crudely crafted signs that pronounce Howard’s very personal opinions, observations, values, and political or religious beliefs. Howard lived and worked in a small, conservatively minded community in rural Missouri, near Fulton, and, after his retirement, was a zealous and prolific sign maker whose source materials included the King James Bible, regional newspapers, local events, and personal experiences. In many of his signs, Howard is, in effect, railing against and admonishing the power structures that had bearing on his life and personal beliefs. Installing his signs along the roadside and on the sides of buildings on his property, Howard staged a public outcry, voicing his concerns regarding the power of the establishment, political and personal injustices, immorality, and truth.

During his life, Howard traveled across the country as an itinerant worker. On his journeys, he would have encountered numerous billboards placed along the new interstate highways which functioned as a vehicle for post-war advertising with a patriotic, uplifting and moralistic message. At home in rural Missouri in later life, his environment would have been full of hand-painted signs advertising businesses and products and announcing upcoming events in the community. Howard’s choice of the sign as a direct means of communication is as practical and effective as it is in the work of Holzer and Pierson, but his intentions are more personally motivated by his desire to talk directly to the world and to leave his individual mark upon a community.

The voice in Howard’s work is highly idiosyncratic, dogmatic, and specific in its conservative, right-wing point of view. There is little tolerance here for another’s perspective and little opportunity for a viewer to interpret a meaning larger than the one originally intended by the artist. There is an obsessive quality to Howard’s stream-of-consciousness commentary on local and world events, a bombastic tone present in his biblical references and quotations, and an undeniable sense of isolation, alienation, betrayal, and loneliness expressed in the more personal writings, directly based on Howard’s life and his experiences.

Jenny Holzer’s earliest series, the Truisms, was started in 1977 while she was a student in the Whitney’s Independent Study Program. For these one-line aphorisms, democratically arranged in alphabetical order, Holzer found inspiration in the program’s extensive required reading list of eastern and western thought. Original statements, such as PRIVATE PROPERTY CREATED CRIME, were authored by the artist as a means of translating profound, intellectual, and sometimes conflicting ideas, representing multiple points of view taken from her readings, into a language for the common man or woman. By reducing these ideas to their simplest possible form and placing them, first as posters wheat-pasted throughout New York, Holzer made the work and its content accessible to a wide and incredibly diverse audience. Holzer continued to use readings, events, and experiences from her own life as inspiration for subsequent series, introducing slight alterations in her use of voice and the thematic subject for each group of texts.

Original yet still anonymous in tone, the Living Series addresses aspects of everyday life and events, some of which were taken from news accounts. Adopting the very institutional and highly-recognizable format of metal plaques, executed in a considered, even-handed tone, Holzer employs a general, impassioned, and non-specific voice to record, with a slight twist, a selection of observations, imperatives, and inner thoughts about living, representing states of action and being acted upon. There is an objective, seemingly neutral quality present in the Living Series and in the later Survival Series that leaves individual texts open to the viewer’s emotional response and a more general, experiential interpretation. To a certain extent, these statements are rendered more effective by their consciously open-ended tone, as they provoke and persuade the viewer to determine their own point of view, rather than presenting one easily identifiable voice or perspective that could be readily dismissed or rejected by the viewer.

PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT, a selection from the Survival Series, is featured as a temporary public art project on the Artspace Project Wall. This work introduces an outdoor component to this exhibition that functions as a real sign, intervening in the public realm. It is in this work that we have the most acute awareness of Holzer’s sophisticated manipulation of language, in her reliance on the presumed authority of an anonymous, seemingly official voice and its power to make us believe a message as truth. Motivated by instincts of survival, self-protection, fear, pain, and human vulnerability, the texts comprising the Survival Series are statements in the form of directives and imperatives that speak to the unsettling and sometimes subtly horrific realities of contemporary life and the true essence of human experience.

Jack Pierson’s word sculpture, Angst, and his word photographs recycle and recontextualize  letterforms cast-off from their previous marquee existence, scavenged, and reassembled by the artist into elegant, one-word narratives. Since Pierson’s works operate more as art than sign, it is fitting that the artist’s attentions are focused more on the arrangement of parts and the final presentation of each word. Formal qualities such as color, composition, font, and background are consciously considered. In effect, the aesthetic qualities of these works are more dominantly apparent than in the work of Holzer and Howard, although our awareness of the letterforms and the reference to signage remains intact.

The simple words – Stay, Sorrow, Eros –  are strangely poetic and powerfully provocative in their ability to quietly evoke associations. These are moody, melancholic works that curiously embody both the general, anonymous voice of Holzer and the more personal, emotive power of Howard’s language. Pierson relies on the commonalities of human experience, allowing the work to seduce its viewer into their own private meditations on emotional states, inner thoughts, and human relations. In a voice without gender or absolute identity, Pierson is dealing with universal themes of living – fear, desire and longing. Each reader must suspect that the words selected and presented by Pierson hold specific meaning for the artist and reflect something about the artist’s experience. However, because these themes are so basic and so universal, there is a space that allows each viewer to interpret each word, each emotion or thought, based on their own experience, thereby enlarging the meaning of the work.

Artists, interested in exploring social and political issues and realms of personal identity and experience, have increasingly incorporated text into their work. Over the past century, art that includes text, language, and narrative has become prevalent and continues to inspire young artists who feel they have a message to communicate. Signage and other forms of mass-media communication have been mined and incorporated by artists, signaling the increasing fluidity and connection between art and life. In their own unique ways, Jesse Howard, Jenny Holzer, and Jack Pierson are three message makers, reflecting their cultures, making signs of the times.