“Wordly: John M. Bennett/Fred Ellenberger/Avril Thurman,” The Carnegie, closed

June 10th, 2017  |  Published in *, May/June 2017

Curated by Peter Huttinger, “Wordly” is the perfect title for this exhibition featuring John M. Bennett, Fred Ellenberger, and Avril Thurman and focusing on words as text or graphic elements. The word play is delicious. And the location is particularly apt as The Carnegie in Covington is one of the 2,509 libraries built by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Huttinger provides the framework for the exhibition in a gallery handout:

Artists using text as image is tied to a long history reaching back to Medieval Codex, illuminated manuscripts, and more recently the DADA movement with its manifestos and other printed material. . . . The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a group of artists generating what came to be known as Concrete Poetry. . . . word and imagery are interrelated and/or hybridized. Words are not used to convey an image—it is the image. 

During the late 1960s and through the 1970s Conceptual artists used language to document actions and ephemeral events—not expressive but descriptive texts—as a means to document their art. 

Huttinger views the works of Bennett, Ellenberger, and Thurman as conjunctions of text, image, object, and place realized through the mediums of sculpture, drawing, poetry (language-based, spoken, or visual), assemblage, and contextual installation. There is a keen interest on their part to build with words, not conventional narratives but things, spaces, and situations. . . . the objective is to use words to disrupt conventional syntax and communicate in new ways. 

With the profusion of work—some six-dozen pieces–I’m inclined to declare the show too wordy and its message muddled.

John M. Bennett, Tick Tick Tick, 2016, collage and ink on corrugated cardboard, 9 ¾” x 7”. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bennett, a Ph.D., is a retired professor of Latin American literature, a poet, and curator of the Avant Writing Collectionat The Ohio State University. The name of the collection seems odd since avant translates as “before” and would make the name mean “before writing,” which does not describe the collection. 

Huttinger writes, Bennett’s: 

expressive and raucous work is a manifestation of his depth of understanding of Latin American literature, Magic Realism, and Mexican folk culture. To the extent that within the same poem, he may alternate between Spanish and English or mix in the ancient Aztec language Nahuati. His poetry—written (often in Asemic form3), visual, collaged, or spoken evokes these Latin American traditions and embraces Europe and American post-war concrete literary and anti-art movements including Fluxus.   

Bennett has commandeered a small gallery, appropriately called the Reading Room, and filled it with published books of his poetry; videos; drawings; mail art; a butcher’s coat with binder clips used in a performance piece; and examples of his distinctive style of writing that tantalizes with intimations of Hebrew or Arabic script, Japanese calligraphy, and the shaky writing made by someone with an infirmity. 

With so much work (45 pieces) in the Reading Room, I found it impossible to concentrate, so skimmed rather than looked/read/looked. It was easier to look at Bennett’s pieces when mixed in with the work of the other two artists.


Avril Thurman, Have a Bandit Day, 2015, spray paint on corkboard, 24” x 36”
The phrase is taken from a locker-room sign in the movie Top Gun. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Thurman’s work just didn’t speak to me. Evidently, according to the wall label, Huttinger also had difficulty. He had “no footing on which to understand” it. He sought enlightenment from her poems, which he found “engaging (but) they offered no explicit key to decipher text nor object.” 

Only after meeting Thurman and visiting her living space with her work displayed did Huttinger grasp it. The works were: 

an extension of and in conversation with her home. Just as I once engaged Avril in conversation, her artworks were engaged in a conversation with the place, one another, and us. So I abandoned my inquiry into meaning and accepted the ancillary texts for their misplaced emotive and formal qualities and physical relation to the thing or ground and place they habitat. 

But doesn’t every artist making an installation create “a conversation with the place, one another, and us”? 

Huttinger goes on: 

From my perspective, the works evolve out of her intensely personal process of observation and recording. It’s as if she finds stray thoughts and objects within various media, removes them for examination, then, through a keen and nuanced understanding of the materials, replicates them and places them in a gallery for us to contemplate. 

That’s heaping a lot on her crudely lettered signs. Take Here (2015-present) for instance. With a neon-orange marker, Thurman wrote the word in all caps on a placard and planted the sign in two terra cotta pots, which are filled with dead grass. It struck me as sophomoric or, stretching it a bit, a grad-school project.

Fred Ellenberger, PROM/ISE, 1991, concrete, 34” x 13” x 2”. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 Ellenberger was the most interesting of the lot. I liked the wry sense of humor in Head Gasket (1988). Die-cut out of cork, it looks like the outline of a head. Exactly how it fits into “Wordly,” I’m at a loss to explain, but it made me smile. 

Ellenberger is a builder by trade, and Huttinger says he: 

has trained himself to attend to detailed points of construction. His is a body of work planned, materials vetted, then executed with precision. Precise to the degree it needs to be, not fetishized, but exactly what is needed to represent an idea. 

That is exactly what you get in two works with words in a simple sans serif lettering cast into blocks of concrete: Kindness (1993) and PROM/ISE (1991). The latter is snapped in two, quite literally a broken promise. I know these particular works can’t be seen without recalling Jenny Holzer but it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of them. 

Most of the work by these three artists didn’t tempt me to read on, especially since there are better reads produced by artists like Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Bruce Nauman, On Kawara, Barbara Kruger, the aforementioned Holzer, and many others. 

Huttinger’s exhibition seems to waste a perfectly good title and venue on work that veers from pretentious to faux-naïve to derivative. 

–Karen S. Chambers 

Wordly: John M. Bennett/Fred Ellenberger/Avril Thurman,” The Carnegie, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington, KY  41011. 859-957-1940www.thecarnegie.com. Hours: Wed.-Sat. noon-5 pm. Closed June 10, 2017  

FOOTNOTES 

All of Huttinger’s quotes are from the gallery handout and/or wall labels. 

Avant Writing

The Avant Writing Collection focuses on a group of primarily North American writers, most of whom became active starting in the 1970’s. They are primarily interested in poetry and visual poetry, but are also writing prose, and in numerous transgeneric forms not easily classified. Many of them are also involved with visual arts, photography, sound art, music, performance, conceptual art, mail art, and/or artists’ books. These writers are all quite unique, but almost none of them are associated with any of the prevailing literary or institutional establishments of the day. Although it is difficult to identify anything like a “school” or “movement” among this group of individualists, most of them know and communicate with each other, publish in the same venues, and are involved in numerous collaborative writing projects. In fact, collaborative writing – often involving numerous and proliferating pseudonyms – is one of the hallmarks of this group of writers. It is also important to note the significant international character of the collection. It includes writers and artists from all over the world, most of whom interact and collaborate on a daily basis. Some of this is due to the ease of communications created by the Internet, but internationalism has been a characteristic of avant-garde movements throughout modern history.

It is important to collect these writers because, as has been the case over and over in the history of literature, the best and most innovative writing, the writing that advances the art and that in the future becomes the classic and defining work of a period, is almost always the work of outsiders. As has been the case in numerous pasts, it is the case today that the best writing, especially the best poetry, is not to be found in the bookstores, in the mainstream publications, in classrooms, nor in many of the libraries. The Avant Writing Collection seeks to remedy this situation as much as possible, by collecting, archiving, and making available a largely hidden, but extremely important, body of literature, so that in the future, scholars and readers will have a place to find it, to do research on how the work was created, on the writers and artists who created it, and on its bibliographic history.” The Ohio State University Libraries, library.osu.edu.

3 “Asemic writing is a wordless open semantic form of writing[1][2]The word asemic means “having no specific semantic content,” or “without the smallest unit of meaning.”[3] With the non-specificity of asemic writing there comes a vacuum of meaning, which is left for the reader to fill in and interpret. All of this is similar to the way one would deduce meaning from an abstract work of art. Where asemic writing differs from abstract art is in the asemic author’s use of gestural constraint, and the retention of physical characteristics of writing such as lines and symbols. Asemic writing is a hybrid art form that fuses text and image into a unity, and then sets it free to arbitrary subjective interpretations. It may be compared to free writing, or writing for its own sake, instead of writing to produce verbal context. The open nature of asemic works allows for meaning to occur across linguistic understanding; an asemic text may be “read” in a similar fashion regardless of the reader’s natural language.[4] Multiple meanings for the same symbolism are another possibility for an asemic work, that is, asemic writing can be polysemantic or have zero meaning, infinite meanings, or its meaning can evolve over time.[5] Asemic works leave for the reader to decide how to translate and explore an asemic text; in this sense, the reader becomes co-creator of the asemic work.” en.wikiedia.org.

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