Press Releases

Language in Art

For Release: March 2014

Historically, when language and images have appeared together one element has dominated the other. Visual artists tended to use words sparingly to identify key figures in narrative paintings or commemorative sculpture. Illuminated manuscripts and illustrated books also had a long tradition in Western art, offering decorations and drawings that illustrated or explicated central texts. Only since Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque introduced words into their Cubist still life paintings and collages in the early 20th century has language become an integral element in visual art. In the intervening years, letters and words have functioned to enrich content, reinforce the two-dimensionality of the picture plane, or create conceptual artworks that consist exclusively of language. 
Language in Art is drawn from the Akron Art Museum’s outstanding collection of modern and contemporary art, which includes many examples of artworks that combine verbal and visual components in new ways. Dating from the 1970s to the present, the sculptures, prints and photographs on view represent diverse approaches to creating images in which text plays an important role. 
Some artists compose their own narratives, as in Sophie Calle’s narrative accompanying photographs she took of items she assembled when she gained access to hotel rooms while working as a chambermaid in Venice. The unsettling questions—What Was I Thinking? Can I Get a Do-Over?—that adorn Kristen Cliffel’s outsized chocolate-frosted pink cupcakes came to mind as the artist struggled to make the best baked goods and clay sculptures, while also seeking to be an outstanding wife and mother.
In contrast, Lesley Dill, who cites language as “the touchstone, the pivot point of all my work,” marries short phrases from Emily Dickinson and other poets with images of the human figure in her evocative compositions. I See Visions, a lithograph on muslin and silk organza, reflects the artist’s interest in textiles, including clothing that serves as “our psychic skin.”
For Ed Ruscha, who has influenced generations of younger artists, language has long functioned concurrently as word and image. His lithograph Excuse Me, I Didn’t Mean to Interrupt is one of a series of prints that feature common phrases the artist culled from popular movies or conversations he overheard. 
Robert Arneson, known for his role in establishing clay as a significant medium for artistic expression, likewise embellishes his sculptures and drawings with familiar phrases.   The visual impact of the charred head in his bronze sculpture Nuke News and a related drawing, A Nuclear Warhead, is heightened by texts such as “arms race v. human race” and “man unkind,” which also serve to reinforce their forms. Both works testify to the artist’s outrage at America’s proliferating nuclear arsenal.
Other artists featured in the exhibition are Shusaku Arakawa, Vernon Fisher, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems and William T. Wiley.
This exhibition is organized by the Akron Art Museum.
Related Programming

Art on the Rocks: Mojitos, Margaritas and Cupcakes with Kristen Cliffel
Sunday, April 13, 11:30 am
Get to know some of our favorite artists over a cocktail as they discuss what goes into their artistic process as well as their favorite cocktail. Each session is $25/members and $30/nonmembers.
Some foods just belong together—peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, cupcakes and mojitos. Cupcakes and mojitos may not seem like the most obvious pairing, but ceramicist Kristen Cliffel doesn’t see it that way. Join Cliffel for mojitos, margaritas and cupcakes as she discusses her artwork, including Dirty Dozen, which is on view in the exhibition Language in Art.
Photo Credit: Kristen Cliffel, They Dirty Dozen, 2010, low fire clay, glaze, luster, wood and Lucite, 32 x 23 x 23 in., Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Gift of the artist in honor of Mitchell D. Kahan 2012.102 a-n

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