Of Colors and Letters

By David Francis, Museum of Glass Curator 

Glass and Contemporary Art

On display at Museum of Glass from February 7 to September 21, 2014, Look! See? The Colors and Letters of Jen Elek and Jeremy Bert provides a prime opportunity to explore the material of glass in the broad context of contemporary art.  Despite the recent 50th anniversary of the Studio Glass movement, the contemporary art world still regards glass with lingering doubts and suspicions when it comes to the larger arena of contemporary art. It is perhaps because it is still vulnerable to skeptical critiques that it remains a craft-based material.

Nevertheless, it is through exhibitions like Look! See? that glass can stake a wider claim on contemporary art and indeed begin to convince even the most resistant gatekeepers that glass, in fact, is in a vanguard position, driving contemporary art forward in unexplored directions.

What is contemporary about Look! See?? Perhaps most apparent is the abstract and minimal quality of the work, rather than a focus on the figurative or representational: the glass in the exhibition also steers away from the vessel, although the float is certainly conjured. The channel letters, by their very nature, are signs from an abstract system; they are found objects recontextualized in a museum setting. The bright, primary, playground colors and choice of abstract spheres, ovoids, steel panels, chrome and letters all conjure the world of Pop Art, an art movement of the late 1950s and 1960s which still exerts a powerful influence today. In Pop Art, mass media is often assimilated or co-opted and brought into fine art. In Look! See?, viewers are not just urged to reflect on the presence of ads in the urban environment, but to actively do something about it, engage the glitz and make use of it, reimagine it, even exploit it for their own (artistic) purposes. More on this shortly.

From Letters to Clusters

Apart from the obvious similarities of abstraction and the shared use of bright, primary colors in both Elek’s glass sculptures and Bert’s channel letters, there are also a few more elusive similarities between their work: both are informed by language, by the metaphor that a linguistic system of communication represents. In this case, the connection to language is explicit in Bert’s work and implicit in Elek’s. Bert’s channel letters, rescued from numerous decommissioned street signs in countless strip malls, exhibit a wide variety of fonts, illuminates and sizes in Transient Light Graffiti (2013; a collaboration by both artists), The Ever Changing Present (Now), (2013), Look! See? (2013) and Flowers (2013). Chances are that most of us have never contemplated the inner mechanisms of these industrial objects. Here, for instance, is an industry diagram of various components of a channel letter (note the faux-stone façade):

Of Colors and Letters_image 2

Some letters may be recognizable to us due to their ubiquity in the cultural landscape: we might, for instance, perceive the ‘m’ from a former Grease Monkey franchise, or the capital ‘B’ from a vanished Blockbuster Video location. Since they are letters, they are also signs in and of themselves – abstract signifiers whose conventions are shared by anyone with a reading knowledge of a particular language (in this case English). Indeed, they convey far more than the corresponding letter of the alphabet or sound – if we consciously source them, they also bring an association of that company, of its brand. Rather than refer to them collectively as an alphabet, Bert revealingly calls Transient Light Graffiti a “word-building set.”

So too Elek’s glass spheres exhibit a wide variety of sizes and stylistic variations – some are elongated, pill-like, while others are spherical and exhibit a range from small to medium to large. Some are slumped against each other while others are fused together in a cluster. Like the letters, they are essentially units capable of numerous combinations, and in this sense they implicitly comment about the same subject matter that Bert’s letters present more overtly. In Palm (2009), the number of elements is 26, corresponding to the number of letters in the English alphabet. (The artists mention that the number is arbitrary, which is entirely possible.  In this case, the number is a coincidence.) Aside from Human Heads (2013), which both artists collaborated on, representations of people are absent. Yet even in the midst of abstraction, Elek gestures towards the figurative: a series of brightly colored, stacked cones loosely suggest trees in Forest (2013), and clear tubular forms cluster together in Crystal (2012). Without the simultaneous display of the letters, it might never occur to someone that Elek’s glass sculptures are essentially syntactical in nature or at least in close proximity to language. But in the immediate vicinity of the signs, her work blossoms into full effect, becoming a means to examine the nature of reality in the face of a bewildering mass of signs and systems. (Average exposure may be up to 5,000 brand messages per day.)

The reflection of words on some of the panel pieces (Believe, 2013; Signal, 2009; both collaborations) is deliberate, just as the reflection of the viewer is also intended to suggest the ways in which language, particularly as delivered by industrial media like street signs, creates a warping or distorting effect that we ordinarily do not notice.  Seeing ourselves in this world of letters and glass units, we see ourselves backward as it were, somehow contained in a world that doesn’t really exist, or one that we create in our imagination (which some might argue is therefore real enough.

Jen Elek and Jeremy Bert, Believe? (2013; detail) Blown glass, chrome plated steel panel
Jen Elek and Jeremy Bert, Believe? (2013; detail)
Blown glass, chrome plated steel panel

Secret Acts of Political Resistance

The artists envision the essential act of seeing in Look! See? as a two-part or two-step process wherein the first act is looking, gazing, staring, with the eye attracted by the beauty of the object or by an apparatus designed to create a visual stimulus. The second step involves perception and a sense of awareness that accompanies the physical act: in our reality, it is all too easy to look without seeing. That is why the second word in the exhibition title is a question mark: seeing is not guaranteed.

In a world of digital information, the business of reaching consumers with messages about products and services they may or may not want has become highly advanced and sophisticated. A glance at an industrial sign company, for example, indicates an entire menu of sign components that alternately flash, reflect, move or otherwise capture the human eye. “Electronic Message Centers (EMC’s),” as an industry website explains, “can be a very aggressive way to market specials and events, as well as create a public service tool that will keep eyes tuned in to your sign” (my emphasis). Against this onslaught of more or less unwanted data, art offers a respite, a welcome relief or rest, perhaps even a moment of fun, when the viewer can reestablish control over the barrage of signals. In this sense, the viewer’s participation completes the artwork; he or she acts as a kind of collaborator or co-author of the text. These sorts of viewer-based processes are very much in the contemporary range, as is the whole implicit critique of art’s role in the media jungle.

For a comprehensive history of letters and words in visual art, see Simon Morley, Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art. In his chapter on the ways in which conceptual artists often deployed words and language systems in art, Morley mentions cultural theorist Roland Barthes, who, he explains

…set about demonstrating the ways in which the message of the mass media could be subversively ‘read’ in order to expose how they manipulated signs. For Barthes these contemporary ‘myths’ were fabricated in order to disguise real social and political conditions and it was necessary therefore for the critic or artist to devise ‘second-degree mythologies’ as forms of cultural deconstruction and resistance. (140)

In this reading, Elek and Bert’s exhibition Look! See? becomes far more than a display of beautiful glass and playfully restored letters; it offers us the means to reflect on our postmodern condition and empowers us to act as agents in the scheme of things rather than passively allow media-generated messages to determine the nature of our reality.

David Francis works primarily as an artist-curator with a practice informed by poetics, critical theory and archaeology (MFA, PhD, University of Washington). As an adjunct college professor for almost 20 years, he taught in Delaware, Washington, Kentucky, Poland (Fulbright), Semester at Sea, and Hungary (Fulbright), finally settling at Cornish College of the Arts from 1999 – 2006, when he began to focus on making visual art, joining Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) as an artist- curator in 2005 – 2013. From the mid-1980s until 2011, he also pursued a parallel career in archaeology, surveying, testing and excavating numerous sites in four states. In addition to more than 20 curatorial essays in exhibition catalogs, his publications include numerous technical reports, an award-winning collection of poems and a book on the indigenous Zoque region of Oaxaca, Mexico.