Exhibit Explores the Power of Words in Visual Art Print
Art - Reviews
Written by Steve Banks   
Tuesday, 21 March 2006 18:00
Editor’s note: Steve Banks served as one of four jurors for this exhibit. Image & Word, the latest show at Quad City Arts, is a comfortably diverse exploration of the uses of text and its relationship with and within images. There are more than 60 works in the downtown Rock Island gallery, including handmade books, ceramic sculptures, digitally composed images, paintings, a bronze sculpture, and several mixed-media constructions.

While this visually strong show is dense in number and eclectic in approach to the partnership between word and image, it doesn’t veer into something conceptually schizophrenic or visually cluttered. The topic is broad enough to accommodate myriad visual inquiries into how text inspires images, how images inspire text, how the two work together, and how word and text struggle in a dysfunctional confederation.

In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, the word was literally image. Medieval illustrated texts saw image-esque calligraphy flourish alongside illustrated pictures, each element informing the other. Sometimes the text provides insight into the image, and sometimes the image gives the text meaning. That relationship between the image and the word and its ability to communicate ideas has become even more important today as various concepts and products seek to seed themselves in our minds.

One of the most stunning pieces, both visually and conceptually, is the tonally rich photograph History Book – Simpson, Kansas by John Deason. Most of the image is consumed by an old book that has been tattered and eroded to the point where there are only islands of perceivable text left. Deason has captured this pitiful tome with a narrow depth of field (a limited area in sharp focus). This intentional use of crisp detail delivers our attention right to the isolated text fragments – which are too few in number to be able to reconstruct their original meaning.

Deason’s image is full of lush darks and captivating textures, but what really makes it extraordinary is the underlying idea within the image. There is no discernible rhyme or reason why some areas of text survived this relentless process and others did not. The physical weathering of the history book mirrors the process of how history itself survives. What we study as “history” is reconstructed from the seemingly random fragments that survive kings, wars, floods, fires, people’s apathy toward preservation, and misinterpretation – both accidental and intentional.

In Jim Riesberg’s digitally composed piece Time After Time, the artist utilizes isolated patches of intense orange within the two circular clock forms to play off of the rich dark tones and the pale sap green that help accentuate some of his underlying text. Although passages of the text are legible, much of it becomes more of a textural element that emerges from the dark areas along with the hints of screw heads, bolts, scratches, and pitted wall texture. Riesberg successfully demonstrates that when constructing an image, sometimes the physical presence of the words is what is important, and not necessarily how decipherable they are.

Karla Runquist uses the word as a point of inspiration to illustrate a gathering of literary icons. In her small and quirky bronze work A Story Told, we are treated to several characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, seated around an overstuffed couch with the Mad Hatter (in his checkered pants, bow tie, and large top hat) and Alice (in her blue dress) sharing a book (presumably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll). Over their shoulders is a small girl in a yellow dress reminiscing about her literary companions. The scene is completed by the plump Cheshire Cat (with resplendent grin) on one side of the chair and the Hookah-toting, heavy-eyed Caterpillar on the other side. While a sculpture derived from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland might sound kitschy, Runquist’s excellent handling of the material and her well thought-out composition acknowledge the dark playfulness of the story but don’t get mired in sentimentality.

Daniel Bodkin’s I Am a Good Christian & So Am I is one of the more complex pieces to explore because its meaning emerges from differences between its two images. It is a diptych with what appears to be two nearly identical robed figures constructed out of canvas, yarn, and glass eyes. Both images are of John Chrysostom (349-407; Chrysostom means “golden-mouthed”), a medieval saint/sermonizer who, in each panel, holds a scroll of Greek text.

The differences quickly emerge between the two. The man in the left panel has white fabric doves emerging from his mouth. On the right panel, some type of dark bat-like creature is spewed from his mouth, and his hand is pointed downward as he is jabbing his finger into the scroll.

The keys to understanding Bodkin’s message lie in the creatures and in the translation of the text. A helpful sign below the piece summarizes the translations of the Greek texts seen in the actual image. The text on the left is 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love is patient” passage commonly heard in wedding ceremonies). The other text is an actual anti-Semitic sermon from Chrysostom that venomously derides the Jews. Bodkin uses the diptych format to good effect to explore Chrysostom’s hypocrisy.

In My Neighbor Lady’s Shrine, artist Linda Brown uses layers of physical objects – such as beads, crucifixes, keys, tokens, ornaments, and angels – in a dense composition to construct a gilded visual cacophony. The use of words is sparing and basically isolated to words or short phrases such as “faith,” “inspire,” and “blessed” scattered around the composition. This piece walks the line between a sincere display of a belief system and a gaudy caricature. This uncertain dual interpretation is what makes the piece so captivating.

Several artists – Bodkin and Brown being two of them – not only utilize text within their images but also use religious motifs as a starting point for their images. They have taken the show’s concept of “image and word” and moved into the realm of “image and The Word.” Words can also be the wellspring for the visual, as seen in Karla Runquist’s work, while other artists such as Jim Riesberg and John Deason subdue the word to become a textural element.

Overall, Image & Word brims with works full of wit, color, playfulness, and keen insights and interpretations.