“Word”— was first used before the 12th century and is taken from Old English. It is akin to German wort, Latin verbum, Greek eirein (to speak) and Hittite (to call name) and is the simplest manifestation of what Foucult would label as “similitude.” The term describes its named self (a word is a word, like, a rose is a rose, is a rose) and also mimics its formal or physical self.
Yet in today’s hipster lexicon, the term is more likely to be taken out of its modern use and dropped randomly in dialogue. Walking into AZ gallery in Chelsea, I am reminded of the latter Gen X spin. A fast-talking, squeaky clean commercial gallery-goer admires a work I can’t see, and with a slumped shoulder releases a well felt: woooooooord. The art becomes witnessed, and word’s own self-reflexivity gives it new meaning, out of context.
My gallery-goer friend had the most appropriate reaction anyone (myself included) could have to the show “More than Words” that opened last Friday night. Curated by Latifa Metheny and Melissa McCaig-Welles, the exhibition brings together ten different emerging artists, who each utilize text in their practices. A few artists stand out. Ayad Alkadhi, an Iraqi painter, subverts traditional notions of decor and portraiture through ornamental activism. Camomile Hixon utilizes the social practice tool of myth making in the piece, “missing unicorn” an undeniable nod to queer theory. Which is subtly continued in her glitter covered canvas that reads: YES. Queer formalism lives on. Two street artists also hide in the gallery. C215 is a French street artist who is “France’s answer to Banksy.” And GILF is an American artist whose 2-D works strangely resemble Goldsmith’s entire 2015 degree show in London.
Yet, the most remarkable formal secret of this exhibition does not lay in its works or even artists, but instead in the small blue text on the bottom of the exhibition handout. A portion of the sales will be donated by the gallery to UNHCR. The UN Refugee agency is an international nonprofit organization that creates systems of help for asylum seekers, internally displaced and stateless peoples. It might be the TOMS effect at work, but to use works like these to fund an organization that creates true concrete change revives (my own) belief in the possibility of ornamental activism. The almost unnoticeable small blue text, radically shifts the shows formal relationship to larger social powers. This gesture alone recalls the exhibition title, “More than Words.” Small steps of concrete change are funded through forms of autonomous cultural production. The seemingly un-useful becomes useful again. Claire Bishop and Ranciere would have a field day.
The gallery-goer who wanders into the exhibition (with their outburst of “word”) accidentally performs the importance of “More than Words.” The exhibition does not challenge “art” but instead allows art to reflect on its own form, and move beyond its own self-reflexivity. The work of art becomes useful in its uselessness, as the autonomy of a work is reconditioned. If it is allowed to exist in the ephemeral cultural economy, its capital hinged on the unclarity of its impact, then it is a work of art that is given the possibility to be radical.— Word.
Participating Artists: Ayad Alkadhi, C215, GILF, Josh George, Camomile Hixon, Greg Lamarche, Tim Okamura, Rocko, Rayna Type, kumi Yamashita.
Group Show ” More Than Words”
Curated by Latifa Metheny and Melissa McCaig-Welles
Azart Gallery 617 west 27th street, NYC
September 18 – October 3, 2015
Writing by Stephen Love
Photographs by Jamie Martinez