Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Words and Pictures

By Jeffrey Lee

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  Artists who use words in their pictures make a kind of magic. They'll uproot language from its everyday discursive meaning, turning word into image. Words in a purely visual context can become simple design, but they can also become totems with an unexplainable power of their own. In either case, it's a variety of wordplay that leaves the dictionary far behind.

In Vs.: Books & Paintings, their dual show at the Harwood Art Center, Heidi Pollard and Cynthia Laureen Vogt use language in different but complementary ways. Vogt makes artist's books that present ambiguous, interrupted narratives in words and pictures; Pollard's glowing, abstract/calligraphic paintings use languages both recognizable and made-up. Both artists question just what words are for when you are engaged in an activity (whether making art or viewing it) where they are ordinarily beside the point.

Vogt's small, Plexi-mounted, accordion-fold books are troves of humor--some of which is disturbing beneath the severe surfaces. Solid, square-cut and almost all black and white (one has text in red), they use print and photo-collage to unwind and circumnavigate fractured "stories." The texts (which range from blunt imperatives to dangling, unfinished phrases and off-kilter aphorisms like Jenny Holzer's) and the pictures (tiny, repeated fragments, particularly of anonymous, bare-bottomed figures) seem to dance around each other, occasionally intersecting in surprising ways. They're threatening, rude, funny and touching, all at once. Vogt's books are also pretty assertive. Their shape pulls you in, and their small size and busy intensity demand, literally, a close reading. They're not art that you can view from a safe distance.

By way of contrast, Pollard's work is big, splashy and colorful. But if that description makes you think of the usual exercises in broad-brush Abstract Expressionism, nothing could be further from the truth. These paintings combine fields of flat color with delicately worked areas that are as intricate and nuanced as musical scores. While several pieces, like Poem + Word (Tongue), have actual words in them, almost all use a squiggly, lyrical "calligraphy," an alphabet that is entirely the artist's own. Pollard is also fond of dots; her paintings are not only "written," they are punctuated. I think it's significant, too, that many of these paintings employ colors some critics (and artists) would dismiss as pretty or decorative. But Pollard's appealing color sense by no means compromises the depth and strength of her work. Her paintings are challenging and friendly at the same time.

If Cynthia Vogt's books use language to tell stories that "read" like abstractions, Heidi Pollard incorporates into her visual world gestures that look like language, but aren't, strictly. They are articulate brushstrokes, like those of a Japanese calligrapher or a Jackson Pollock, and they are simply the alphabet of paint on canvas, line and color aimed directly at the eye. These differing approaches make Vs.: Books & Paintings not only a good exhibit, but an engaging dialog.


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