Regan Golden-McNerney, “…the Writing on the Wall,” Susceptible to Images, May 23, 2007. A Review of Jan Estep’s exhibition Hot Air Sincerely at Barrow + Juarez Contemporary Art, May 1-25, 2007, 207 E. Buffalo Street, Lower Level, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
that language has a physical dimension. We forget that words, formulated in the mind, come up out of the throat, are shaped by the tongue, and exit the mouth into the world. I was reminded of the intricate relationship between our bodies and our words by Jan Estep’s exhibition Hot Air Sincerely at Barrow + Juarez Contemporary Art, 207 E. Buffalo, in the basement of the Marshall Building.
The process of speaking and writing is as extraordinary as it is mundane. Estep’s work is as ordinary as language, consisting only of unbleached linen canvases with small, black lettering. On each canvas is a single aphorism that connects the body to language, such as “Eye to eye” or “It left a mark on me.” Estep’s work is also as extraordinary as language; there are 156 canvases, with all of the lettering stitched by hand. Estep uses the simplest materials to remind us of the complexity of language.
Estep’s work integrates art and philosophy. Included in the exhibition are the stitched definitions of conflicting philosophical positions, such as the “cynic” and the “optimist.” Alongside and between these two poles (literally and philosophically) lie the stitched definitions of the terms “sceptic”, “idealism” and “Pollyanna.” These works are representative of Estep’s carefully designed process that is both manual and intellectual, visual and textual. As she describes in her artist statement, the work is “a hybrid creative process that blends art making, writing and art criticism.”
This mode of working resonates with many contemporary artists whose practice is informed by the Conceptual art of the late 1970s of Marcel Broodthaers and Joseph Kosuth. While Estep may work with similar ideas about how language and meaning are constructed and collected, she also threads in another important influence on contemporary art —the work of Feminist Artists like Mary Kelly and Barbara Kruger. Although Conceptual and Feminist artists of the 1970s tend to be discussed separately, Estep’s work suggests that the art historical division of these two art movements may be an artificial one.
At this moment in contemporary art and philosophy when the emphasis is on the decentering of the subject, Estep’s work raises the question, how does the meaning and design of language continue to influence (or limit) how we describe our lived experience outside dialectical constructs?
How are common phrases and dictionary definitions altered by sewing them rather than printing them? Why make text more difficult to reproduce? Moreover, is their meaning changed simply by being sewn and not typed? The change in the text is not a dramatic one, the scale is small and the color is the black, but in sewing the words, and more specifically these phrases taken from everyday speech, the dictionary or a song, Estep makes difficult something that is easy, readily available, and perhaps, too often taken for granted.
Stitching the words onto square canvases emphasizes the horizontality inherent in textual production. We write on tabletops or keyboards, yet this horizontal orientation is lost in the verticality of the printed word. This is very apparent in the video piece, Talking Book (2006). Seated at a desk, Estep uses a marker to write out each line of a song by Lou Reed on a white sheet of paper. The experience induces a strange dislocation, even dizziness for the viewer, because of the difficulty of reading the words as they are slowly written out. When Estep holds her handwritten page up to the camera a wave of relief washes over me. With the text properly oriented vertically, I could easily read the words, “I wish I had a talking book, that told me how to act and look.” Estep’s Hot Air Sincerely gives form to language, making words into images, while also suggesting that the process of making meaning is a laborious and delicate deed.
One of the elements of this show that I enjoyed most as an emerging artist is Estep’s artist statement. She describes her process and ideas in detail, including her experience of writing about other artists: “every article I have written manifests a concern addressed in my visual art, albeit more abstractly and often under the guise of another artist’s work.” Similarly, I am writing about Estep’s work in order to learn something new about my own relationship to language as an artist.
While this exhibition is visually spare, it challenges the limits of what an audience can expect from an artist: as contemporary artists take on new roles as artist/botantist or artist/philosopher, will the entire structure of making, reviewing and teaching art be changed?
Installation view of works by Jan Estep in Hot Air Sincerely.
Video still from Talking Book, Jan Estep.