hapax legomena

I've titled my most recent series of work hapax legomena, and the first question everyone asks is "What does that mean?" The simple dictionary definition is usually for the singular hapax legomenon (noun, ha·pax le·go·me·non \ˌha-ˌpaks-li-ˈgä-mə-ˌnän, ˌhä-ˌpäks-, -nən\): a word appearing only once in a document or corpus. It comes from the Greek, meaning “something said only once.” It is often abbreviated to just “hapax.”

My work has always been closely connected to words and language and linguistics. Sometimes that simply involves the visual patterns that words make, sometimes it involves the rhythms of a poem or the way words play against one another. Sometimes that play is blatant wordplay, ranging from the (hopefully) sophisticated to the (blatantly) juvenile.

In this series, it’s about the idea of a word only being used once — only once in the entire Hebrew Bible, only once in the Christian New Testament, only once in all the plays by William Shakespeare, etc. They are not inherently special words when isolated and removed from their context; they become random patterns when sprinkled across a sheet of paper. In the case of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets or Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, they read like rambling gibberish when strung out consecutively in narrative form.   

And no (to answer the next question), I didn't painstakingly count how many times each word in the Bible is used. Luckily, that research has been conducted by academics who apparently have even less worthwhile to do than I. And it's easily found (like everything else) on the internet. For example… Also easily found (and easily used) is a simple little Java applet that did the counting for me for the Donne and Beckett pieces…

art review (long ago & far way)

I recently found some old reviews that I wrote in the archives of a couple of publications I worked for in a past life. Maybe the artist(s) or curator(s) who created the exhibitions I reviewed will also find them interesting. Maybe not…

I'll start with Tim Crowder since he's having a show at David Lusk Gallery this summer, which I'm looking forward to seeing.

(more to come…)

Crowder Paintings Whisper Volumes

Publication: The Commercial Appeal
Section:  Fanfare
By: Cory Dugan Special to The Commercial Appeal
Date: December 21, 2003
Edition: Final
Page:  F1

Tim Crowder claims to need a new language. But judging from the collection of paintings on exhibition at David Lusk Gallery through Tuesday, he seems to be communicating quite effectively. In fact, Crowder's dense layers of imagery and paint almost seem to speak. The voice is a whisper, sometimes threatening or accusatory, sometimes a throaty riddle or an under-the-breath innuendo. The sentences are incomplete, the messages are unfinished and often the words aren't even in English. Make no mistake, however: Listen closely and Crowder's paintings can talk.

Crowder sets the tone of the exhibit with its title, "pathetic attempts at god-like power," juggling lower-case irony and enigmatic fatalism. The Herculean task of the painter, after all, is to fashion a world from little more than imagination and a few mineral-based pigments. Crowder's world has bright blue skies and lush green grass, but its gravity is allegorical rather than physical. It is populated with cute storybook animals and silhouettes of children, appropriated from primers and classic juvenilia but cast into single-scene dramas laden with ambiguous adult paranoia. It is a darkly comic universe, filled with anxious nostalgia and surreal narrative. It has been created, but one gets the sense might be out of the creator's control.

Recurring images appear as in episodic dreams — silhouettes, word balloons (often as not empty), hatch-marked tallies, botanical images, plump songbirds. A disembodied hand holds a terrier's leash in one painting, echoing the disembodied foot that approaches a floating stairstep in another. Words and phrases - sometimes in English, more often in German - appear like handwritten captions or headlines or just notes in unseen margins, in careful-schoolboy cursive or block caps and lower case.

Crowder's painting style is actually an adept amalgam of styles, ranging from casually realistic modeling to expressive sweeps of the brush, from flat areas of dead gray or white paint to lively meandering drips. As a whole, the surface of Crowder's paintings is a sumptuous strata of color and enameled texture, laid generously upon wooden panels that often still bear the scabs of hardware and sometimes proudly wear patterns of small holes like ritual scarification. A few paintings employ cutout wooden shapes, flowers or silhouettes, for collaged bas-relief effects. Lengths of metal wire, twisted into cursive script, adorn the surface of one painted panel. This surfeit of styles and materials might seem overindulgent, but in conjunction with Crowder's disparate iconography and eclectic cast of characters, it only seems appropriate.

In the exhibition's centerpiece painting, "Thing of Great Beauty," a white plate decorated with a single blue Delft flower is suspended like an enormous moon above a quaint country cottage. A boxlike shadow extends into the picture plane, mysterious and as solid as asphalt. In the upper left corner, a quickly sketched squirrel appears to have scampered along a scrolled trail of holes in the wooden panel. Counterbalancing it in the lower right corner is a single word — LIES — inscribed like a shouted accusation. Gravity, scale and three-dimensionality are all out of kilter in this picture, but we are left with the impression that it is not the laws of physics that are being called lies. The lies are elsewhere, unseen and ominous, outside the painting.

On the low and scrubby horizon line of "Alles Jagdbares" a grass hut and corrugated-metal shack flank the uninstalled shell of a swimming pool; the face of a blond white man, obscured by a blotch of white paint and parenthetically captioned "our hero," floats in the perforated expanse of sky above. A thought balloon bubbles from his forehead declaring "Ich bin hier fremd" (roughly translated, "Strangely, I am here"). The painting as a whole is captioned at the bottom "Swimming Pool in Burundi." The damning implications of Eurocentric imperialism are unusually obvious in consideration of Crowder's typically inscrutable subject matter, but the statement is as politically poetic and powerful as the image itself.

The use of German in Crowder's new work (he has previously used French in similar fashion) is alternately effective and gimmicky. In most cases, it adds an extra flavor but little extra substance. Translation usually adds minimal insight; Crowder's narratives would be no less intriguing if rendered completely in English. In the series of small works on paper entitled "I Need a New Language," wherein singular objects are painted on flat fields and labeled simplistically in German, the result is bland and affected. Lacking the irony of a Magritte une pippe and all too preciously rendered as faux artifacts, their only interest is as a glossary of objects found in other paintings. If taken out of the context of this exhibition, even that small level of interest would quickly dissipate.

But this series is Crowder's only minor misstep. The larger panels, and a series of small paintings on pages from grade-school textbooks, are unsettling and lyrical. Their images have the potential to haunt. Their words are amusing, sinister and puzzling. Whatever their language — English, German or just paint — they communicate. 

more from the archives

It's Part Art Show, Part Revival

PUBLICATION: Commercial Appeal, The (Memphis, TN)
SECTION: Playbook
BY: Cory Dugan Special to The Commercial Appeal
DATE: July 2, 2004
Page:  G31

There's an old Southern prayer, usually employed by the seldom-at-church and certain free-lance art critics, that implores: "Dear Lord, let me seek the truth, but spare me the company of those who have found it." It's designed to ward off proselytizers of all stripes, from Pentecostals to postmodernists.

Despite this earnestly irreligious prayer and a healthy suspicion of the exhibition establishment's current embrace of self-taught, outsider, visionary and folk artists, I can hereby declare it safe to enter the Art Museum of the University of Memphis and see "Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South."

The culmination of nearly a decade of research by curator Dr. Carol Crown, an associate professor of art history and former art department chair at the university, "Coming Home!" contains 122 artworks by 73 artists who never benefited from a university art class and whose intent is to translate the "Word of God" into some sort of visual language.

Some of the biggest names in the self-taught field are included: Painters Howard Finster, Clementine Hunter, Myrtice West and Sister Gertrude Morgan are each well represented. Sculptors William Edmondson and Edgar Tolson are also included — as are Mose Tolliver and Jimmy Lee Sudduth, who are not known for religious imagery. But many of the more interesting discoveries and innovative works are by lesser-known artists.

Crown separates the work in "Coming Home!" into four sections, and its installation serves to herd the viewer (or pilgrim) through a not-so- straight but narrow path that follows her directions. A temporary wall of corrugated metal divides the main gallery and provides much needed wall space as well as an architecturally thematic link to the mostly rural base of artists.

The first section is labeled "Southern Religious Life," and its theme is to provide an introductory picture of evangelical church services. Here we see religious frenzy depicted in a number of paintings and sculptures as dance, celebration, musical performance, snake handling and "holy rolling." The most striking pieces in this section are the abstract works on paper by John 'J.B.' Murray, an illiterate who considered his drawings to be a visual expression of speaking in tongues.

The section on "The Garden of Eden" deals with the story of Adam and Eve and the concept of original sin. Most of the imagery is very familiar, and very few works stretch the canon. One exception is Lonnie Holley's disturbing assemblage of a child's battered pink scooter bisected by a crude wooden cross that bears the title, "Thou Shalt Not." This powerful image, dealing with child abuse, seems at first glance to bear little relation to the theme of the Garden of Eden; the curatorial explanation is that it also represents God's curse on humanity for disobeying the original commandment. Hugo Sperger's large-scale "Creation," a continuous narrative of the Eden myth, is a reminder (despite its comic-strip styling) of the relation between of much of the work in this exhibition to medieval Christian art, especially to illuminations and Carolingian manuscripts. (It is also a fitting reminder that Crown's previous area of expertise was medieval art.)

The third section is called "The New Adam," and it deals broadly with images of Jesus. Most deal with the Crucifix ion, but simple portraits, depictions of the black Jesus, and a few nativity scenes are also included. Jesse Aaron's "Crucifixion" stands out in its rawness and abstraction, fashioned into a truncated torso from a found piece of wood in the form of a rounded X. Elijah Pierce's version is an impressive collection of painted wood reliefs, again suggesting the narrative structure of medieval manuscripts.

The last segment of "Coming Home!" is the largest; "The New Heaven and Earth" is subdivided into sections on prophecy, judgment day and heaven (the "home" in the exhibition's title). Of these, the section on prophecy offers the most fascinating iconography, based on biblical readings and on "prophecy charts" that were created and distributed by the Millerite sect in the 1800s.

Certain imagery is repeated by many artists in this section, such as variations on the many-headed beast from Revelation and the "Colossus" from the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel.

Wandering through "Coming Home!" would be a daunting task if not for the guidance provided by the wall texts and the flow of traffic dictated by the curator's narrative. Even so, it feels part art show and part sideshow, part tent revival and part three-ring big top, part museum and part flea market.

another piece of history

A Journey in Time at Power House

PUBLICATION: Commercial Appeal, The (Memphis, TN)
SECTION:  Playbook
BY: Cory Dugan
DATE:  June 25, 2004
Page:  G30

Logic and mathematics teach us that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But that's true only if the two points are on a flat plane. On a sphere the line would be an arc. If the two points exist in time (and supposing one could actually draw a line in four dimensions), the line might take a circuitous and somewhat organic path.

That's what is suggested in Terri Jones's exhibition, "Drawing a Line from 1993-2004," at the Power House through Aug. 1. Jones makes and follows those logical straight lines and arcs in her artwork, but thankfully she also makes the intermittent loop and takes the occasional unexpected leap.

The first artworks on view comprise a compact retrospective of her mature career, collecting (or re-creating) pieces that have been exhibited previously. Jones's work in this segment is cohesive, due less to a distinct style than to her distinct attitude. A tangible signature during this period is her use of nearly intangible materials. Glass, water, light and shadow, vellum and graphite are her media of choice; color, except for a few startling intrusions of blue neon, is limited to white, gray and natural finishes.

The most striking of these works is "Merging Histories, Shared Secrets and Not Yet," an installation from 1995. Water-filled drinking glasses are lined along a sturdy steel shelf; each glass contains a fishing hook, and the hooks are collectively connected by string to a single dipping gourd on the floor below. This is a lyrical and disturbing allegory, an open narrative that merges sentiment, penance, hope and dread all in one potentially hazardous reflection. Jones here is able to successfully fuse the underlying current of romanticism (the good kind) in her work with the crisp and nearly ascetic conceptualism that dictates its execution.

Also disturbing but far less openly romantic is "Sack," which appears to be exactly what its title implies: a trompe l'oeil grocery sack expertly assembled and rendered from fine art paper and archival adhesive. Like Jones's earlier "Lost Penny" (also in the exhibition, a facsimile of a penny painted directly on the floor), "Sack" could be viewed as a comment on perception, banality, disposability and commerce — especially as it applies to art. But it has a disconcerting presence. Rigid, sterile white and completely empty, it presents itself as both a ghostly void and a waiting repository.

As welcome and still impressive as Jones's previously exhibited work is, it is her new art in the bowels of the Power House downstairs that puts "Drawing a Line" a few steps above everything else on her estimable exhibition resume. Much of Jones's art has always been about perception, be it of self or art or society, often teasing the viewer's preconceived notions about what he is actually seeing. Jones takes her new installations to a next level and succeeds at manipulating our perception of space and atmosphere. She also adds color to her long-pallid palette, and it is appropriately red.

"Hot Wax Line" is a slender copper trough in a dark little cave at the bottom of the stairs, about a foot off the damp floor, a narrow aqueduct filled with molten red paraffin that dead-ends 9 feet into the room. Its sculptural image is modernist, a sleek minimalist miniature; but starkly spotlighted in this claustrophobic grotto, its effect becomes sensuous and ritualistic.

In a similar gallery, Jones posits a vitrine filled with dirt and planted with red zinnias — still seedlings at this viewing, but promising flowers before the close of the exhibit. Situated at the darkest recess of this underground room and illumined by grow lights, the installation assumes an air of artificial drama. A large circular mirror in the corner, facing the entrance to the room, offers a view of the vitrine from outside.

Jones classifies her artwork in the south gallery as seven separate pieces, but as a solitary installation they define a peculiar space that no previous exhibitor has been able to tame. Five wedges, cast in red glass and the size and shape of doorstops, are placed somewhat symmetrically around the room. With their tapered glass ends butted into the concrete juncture of wall and floor, they represent the ultimate futility.

Meanwhile, Jones accumulates red sweeping compound (a mixture of oil and grit used to clean industrial floors) inside the exposed chimney and along the sills of the windows overlooking the gallery. Like red snow, it provides a soft counterpoint to the brittle wedges and, like any good chapel ceiling fresco, draws the viewer's eye up to the cathedral height of the space.

From outside, the "Power House Red Line" in the windows matches the color of the exterior brick and serves to subtly blur the industrial angularity of the building.

Terri Jones is one of only a handful of local artists who could legitimately attempt to tackle the architectural challenge of the Power House. She not only tackled it; unlike the nationally known artists who preceded her, she brought it to its knees.