Jersey CityThe Museum of Russian Art
Type as image
June 25 – July 8, 2015
Type as Image, organized by a young, New York-based curator named Jill Coklan, did an excellent job of presenting three artists who work with typefaces as part of their imagery. Given the print possibilities made actual by computers and printers, works using typefaces feel a bit antiquated, seemingly a thing of the past. Yet Coklan has found two artists and a two-person collaborative who use type as a major support in making highly interesting images. In their work, some of the type can be read in its own right, while in other cases, it is used more or less abstractly. It used to be that the design of type was a craft, but now such design has been taken over by technology. The artists involved in Type as Image—Detroit-based Lynne Avadenka, the New York City collective Purgatory Pie Press (Esther Smith and Dikko Faust), and Chicagoan Vida Sacic—are determined to maintain the use and creative invention of typeface imagery as an ongoing artistic vehicle, that is, not of the past but concerning the present and future.
Avadenka works as a visual artist, printmaker, and bookmaker. She maintains an active studio practice, while at the same time running a community print shop in Detroit called Signal-Return. For Type as Image, Coklan chose examples from the series “Gone,” a sequence in which Avadenka has composed to explore feelings of grief and mourning. In Occom’s Alphabet Black (2009), Avadenka beautifully incorporates ovals—a major stylistic feature in the artist’s work—to commemorate the life of Samson Occom, an 18th-century Native American convert to Christianity, who was a charismatic teacher and writer who helped raise money eventually used to start Dartmouth College. In Occom’s Alphabet Black, we see letters occupy the top and bottom of the horizontally posed composition, whose background is an off-white. The colors used for the letters are muted, transparent grays, greens, and blacks punctuated by small geometric forms: circles, squares, and rectangles. Avadenka here memorializes a major, under-known historical figure who was important to the beginnings of Native American literature.
The works of Purgatory Pie Press, based in Tribeca in New York City, have been collected by such major institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim Museum. Faust, one of the two collaborators, began a sequence called the “Tessellation Series,” which is based on a three-color pattern he found in an archaic cave painting dating back to 9000 BCE. He composed a design that made use of the pattern and then set it into type. The imagery developed to the point where it included styles inspired by tiling, brick laying, and weaving. Mezin (2012), the image included in the show, presents a series of interlocking shapes in black and white; they look a lot like the decorations on a Greek frieze, and form rows that connect with each other in a satisfyingly graphic manner. Tessellation is the decoration of a floor with mosaics, and here Faust has found a pleasing way of formulating an image with basic repetitive forms. Smith, the other collaborator, helped with the series for the creation of a broadside.
Sacic’s usual medium is the letterpress, although her designs and artworks tend to use letters abstractly rather than as vehicles of legible meaning. The Type as Image exhibition put forth three examples from her “Electric Biology” series, in which Sacic explores her position as a survivor of a brain tumor. Example #43 from the “Electric Biology” sequence shows a beautiful command of the abstract strength of letters put together in an interesting fashion. In this powerful image, we see a pile of black rectangles, some of them built by darker black stripes. In the bottom right, there are pink versions of the capital letter Q, one of which is mostly overlapped by the one of the black transparent rectangles. The heap of forms and letters rises upward on the right, where a flock of the letter V, nearly in a birds’ V-formation, move toward the rounded black splotch on the right. Item #43 is a highly advanced abstract composition, whose unusual beauty takes place because of Sacic’s innate sense of balance and strong accumulations of form.
All three images take off from a place of literary realism in order to move toward a daydream of embellished beauty, in which the letters are used mostly for reasons of abstract design. Coklan’s exhibition has very nicely placed together artists who connect with each other by means of a highly developed sense of pattern, in which the single alphabet letters are removed from their usual vehicle of legibility and take on a visual strength from their appearance alone. In Avadenka’s case, the letters notably crowd ceiling and floor of the exhibition; in the image by Purgatory Pie Press, we see a formal pattern evolve from a particular borrowing from earlier culture; and in Sacic’s work, there exists the inspired use of individual letters in a non-objective fashion. These artists remind us that type can still be used in remarkable ways that strengthen our sense of the letters as a means of transport not only of readable meaningfulness but also visual composition.
Jonathan Goodman is a poet and art critic who has been writing about art for four decades. He is especially interested in sculpture and contemporary art from Asia. He also teaches at Pratt Institute.