Bringing together the visual with the written word is not shocking. The visual banality of letters was transformed into decorative art for the ages, and for the greater glory of God by stir crazy monks working on vellum. Chinese and Japanese calligraphy has been an honored art form in those cultures for centuries. Picasso pasted text from the daily paper in early collages because they worked formally. Recent Medal of Freedom recipient Jasper Johns infused the neutral configurations of letters and numbers with fresh meaning by responding to them in painterly and visual terms.
Most similarly to the present case of Theodore Svenningsen, Mel Bochner packed candy colored words and phrases edge to edge on canvases that read like inscribed tablets. Going back to the late 1960s rise of Conceptual Art, in which Bochner was a youthful principal, the then shocking argument was made that since all images begin as verbal ideas, why not just stop at the verbal ideation? An enormous volume of intellectual energy was subsequently invested in imagery that frequently went off the rails by insisting that we should read art rather than see it. It all became quite puritanical, and as often as not emotionally bankrupt.
Forty years beyond the initial conceptualist Big Bang, artists like Svenningsen have returned to embracing the visual possibilities at language’s core. “Only This Is This Painting” depicts its title in block letters, each handled monochromatically but in painterly fashion. Drips and washes enliven the ground, but not with abandon. Line breaks arbitrarily divide words, and the absence of spacing demands a few extra moments from us to decipher the five word phrase, which must naturally be pondered as we proceed to eyeball the formal elements: Letters stack one on top of another, or float in defiance of a gravity that isn’t there. Patterns of colors flow like rivulets or form masses. There are the details of surface enrichment. Reflection on the statement of uniqueness combines with the activity of visual examination to sustain attention.
A drawing aesthetic is the dominant note in “This is the Form of This Painting” for the simple reason that the letters spelling out the title have only been stenciled in. Each letter receives a lone brush mark in one color or another, with warm background washes serving to push the letters forward, but only slightly. The message of the phrase, again, serves to push us back and forth between rhetorical and formal elements. One side of the interchange props up the assumptions of the other, but Svenningsen appears cognizant of the danger of patness, witness “You Can Picture a Thought But You Can’t Paint a Theory.” Here the words form an unmistakable headline against a rainbow background suggestive of the rising or setting sun, or of klieg lights. The rule explicit to both words and image is consistent with the common critical view that art is weakened by the tendency to illustrate a theory.
There is a heartfelt quality to Svenningsen’s paintings that makes them come across as expressions of personal beliefs. But I’m not so sure about that. There is the feel of a playwright here, and that it would be a mistake to confuse the character that these paintings construct with the artist. In “He Lived in a World Where Money Replaced Emotion” the third person pronoun asserts that the artist is definitely not describing himself. The handling of the text is the mental equivalent of a fade to black.
The overtly dramatic narrative is taken in a juicier formal direction in “She was Trapped in Her Life” and “If and Only If.” Both rely on more of a hand-scripted depiction of language and structures of concentric rectangles and circles that produce a far more mystical visual field. Numerous small swatches of color only heighten that feeling, lending musicality to the obsessively repeated words. The psychological states evoked in these images are clear and easy to grasp, and undoubtedly familiar to many. The visual effect strikes poignant and authentic notes that transcend the obvious. The intensity distilled here is surprising, and it is what justifies the show. If much of the work here remains earthbound, we see in these instances a romantic in the 19th century vein of William Blake who may have only just begun to tell his primary story.
Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal ©2011