Synthetica, which showed at the Weston Art Gallery from November 30, 2018 – January 27, 2019, professed a keen logic of material innovation accompanied by a significant theoretical undertaking –these nine local artists sought not only to transfigure two-dimensional surfaces with an array of diverse materials but, also, how to consequently render new linguistic applications to visual art. Perhaps this is a limp and loose venture for every gesture, figure, and demarcation -including the absence or negation of expression – falls within the linguistic database and, consequently, semiotics. Nonetheless, Synthetica finds Tyler Bohm, Susan Byrnes, Matt Coors, Jeffrey Cortland Jones, Marc Leone, Time McMichael, Paige Williams, and Bruce Riley using an amalgam of material to profess a series of personal approaches to fomenting visual language, some of which are more striking and innovative than others. Synthetica’s most invigorating works not only involve themselves with a broad range of materials but also gesticulate towards the contemporary sociological implications in the visual network.
An artistic commitment to visual language, or the ocular task of articulating language, is, indisputably, on one hand a commitment to reflecting on the operational and social conditions of language and, on the other, an engagement with semiology/linguistics. Consequently, we cannot talk about “visual language” without briefly touching on Ferdinand de Saussure, whose instrumental book, Course in General Linguistics (1906-1911), serves as a foundational bedrock for all subsequent discourse on linguistics.
In addition to posing the relationship between the signifier and signified, diverting from comparative linguistics and specifying the units to be studied and what their identity conditions, Saussere’s text introduced the distinction between langue and parole: Sasurre maintained that, without langue, we cannot define an object or field of study and, naturally, this applies to aesthetics and philosophy of art (the fields that any dialogue on “visual language systems” in inherently situated within). Thus, I will briefly clarify Saussure’s distinction: langue refers to a particular language and parole to speech; many students find it helpful to analogize these terms within the game of chess whereby langue invokes the rules of chess and parole the individual moves a chess player makes.
Empirically speaking, a “general linguistics” is folly and visual art is forced to recognize some parameters – visual art’s historical and genealogical junctures and confrontations with linguistics are multiplicitous and self-referential – the artistic “urge to communicate” accompanies the uniquely gestural possibility of language that has long-colored art history since the invocation of Modernist subjectivity. In fact, Clement Greenberg’s central concern(s) with medium-specificity entrenched the validity of Modernist aesthetics with utilitarian purposiveness, transfiguring a universal maxim of visual language that would impose and entrench a “self-critical” praxis, potentiating visual art’s distinctively “medium-specific” langue.
In the wake of Derridean deconstruction and postmodernity’s “incredulity towards metanarratives,” (Lyotard xxiv, 1984) or distrust of Grand Theories, this argument of medium-specificity was abandoned, with parodic self-conscious reflexivity turning Greenbergian tenants on their head. This is one of Synthetica’s paradoxical mishaps – Paige Williams’ wandering lines (e.g. Attempts and Errors, 2016) and Jeffrey Jones’ soft color-field case studies (Postcard, 2017), unwittingly or not, pay homage to the timeworn and outmoded epochal concerns of Louise Bourgeois, Hedda Sterne, and Barnett Newman, while reveling in the oblation of “new languages.” In lacking this historical framework, some of Synthetica’s artists unremarkably sideline themselves with the nescient and headless bastion conflagration of visual art that professes “something new,” or revolutionary, without peering backwards or caring to self-contextualize.
Thus, what I seek to underscore is that visual artists who seek to offer something innovative or novel also necessarily ought to undergo a bit of social consideration. Art historian Jonathan Crary’s seminal text Techniques of the Observer addresses a transformation in the nature of visuality that is quite possibly more profound than the break between medieval imagery and Renaissance perspective – how rapid developments in the late twentieth century, undergirded by computer graphics techniques and a sweeping series of reconfiguration of relations between observing subjects and modes of representation, have nullified the culturally established meanings of observer and representation (1990, 8). Crary details emergent technologies of image production that have become the dominant forms of visualization, intertwined with global information industries and the expanding requirements of medical, military and police hierarchies – “visual images no longer have any reference to the position of an observer in a ‘real,’ optically perceived world.” (2). Accordingly, probing visual language is no longer a venture aligned by the functions of the human eye but, rather, one supplanted by bits of electronic mathematic data, whereby visuality is situated on a cybernetic and electromagnetic terrain where abstract visual and linguistic elements are consumed, circulated, and exchanged.
This is not to pose that unique junctures between linguistics and visual-art are remiss: in fact, I would offer that Manny Farber was an explicitly “linguistic painter” whose quotational/referential style traversed the “termite tracks” of routine pleasures and techniques of observation: tools, houses, and notebooks curiously littered Farber’s canvasses. In a historically appropriate turn, Synthetica shifts away from this quotational invocation, with a penchant for visualizing language through abstraction.
Paige Williams and Jeffrey Cortland Jones seem to be nostalgically musing over a humanist “analog” project involving the grid, color field, and a Hegelian dialectic-mediation synthesis between form and formlessness, which summons the whimsical error of the human hand. In fact we can posit Susan Byrnes and her waggish Untitled (Viscosity Series) (2018) pigmented cast paintings into this category as well. However, there is something explicitly digital – and, consequently, contemporary – in Tyler Bohm’s singular approaches to systems and linguistics. Bohm’s titles – Everything Emulator (2015), Hacked (2014) and Mirror Rorrim (2015) – and his appropriation of the database clearly bridges cybernetics’ circulatory locomotion with the assembly of elements, imagistically culling an uncovered computer processing-chip, which we may very well consider as the exigent impasse between the analog (or “instance”) with the digital (or “essence”). Bohm’s work is undoubtedly invigorated with digital language and postmodernity’s “database logic as symbolic form.” (Manovich 1999).
There seems to be a severe schism between the antithetical two approaches employed in Synthetica. The task of unveiling a contemporaneous “visual language” necessitates examining the subjectivities of humanity. Therefore, I fault not only Paige Williams with turning a blind eye towards the surveillant psychopower mechanisms of the “digital turn,” but also Bruce Riley, whose biologically-bent psychedelic paintings celebrate an unprecedented and apolitical utopianism. Matt Coors’ Geode series utilize synthetic felt cutouts and snaps, gleaning the machinic language behind the works’ composition, but fails to explore the conditions (or language) of his interface, ignoring the concomitant conversation behind rationalized systems of exchange and networks of information, preferring to pose diptychs of vessels and geometric decoration.
Thus, what I applaud in Tyler Bohm’s work are his considerations of the language of “deep digitality,” a result of his reduplicative multiplexing composition. Instead of a single point of view scanning a multiplicity of image feeds, deep digitality is a question of the multiplicity, or infinitude, of points of view flanking and flooding the “world viewed.” (Galloway 64, 2014). Tyler Bohm’s “word viewed” postures matrices of vision, reminiscent of CCTV meshes deployed across cities or the multiple data points involved in data mining. In short, Bohm’s work – while not “digital” in the literal sense (his mixed media is an amalgam composition, after all) consolidates polyphonic existence with arachnean network lines, examining how a network is individuated and the digital language of control. Bohm’s works draw assemblies of mutually informant lines and divisive fractures – not a metaphorical allegory of transition between the “mass and individual” that accompanied the modern era but, rather, an allegory of how individuals become dividuals, or how masses becomes “samples, data, or banks.” (Deleuze 1999, 5). Thus, Bohm’s work accomplishes digitality without being digital, an impressive feat that is certainly worth extolling.
Thus, I applaud Tyler Bohm’s mixed-media Plexiglas topologies, whereby space operates through nodes that exist inseparably from their parameters (or “measures of control”). When Tim McMichael’s tinted resin and gouache cutouts such as Whitewashed (2018) and faded, resin-bedaubed American flag, Pulse (2016-17) are farmed by Bohm’s distributed networks, they do become invigorated with political vigor. This is how the human touch of painting and Modernist subjectivity becomes contemporaneous, as it invites an interrogatory remark on the data-fication of the individual (the decimal data language of control society). However, in isolation, the “visual language” of Synthetica’s nostalgia-paintings often present a utopian and romantic tactility-obsessed reflections on the Modernist self that really bring nothing new to a conversation on “visual language.” As Bohm evinces, however, this most certainly does not mean that there is nothing “new” to be said – quite the contrary, in fact.
Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer. MIT Press, 1990.
Deleuze, Gilles “Postscript on Control Societies,” in Negotiations, 179.
Galloway, Alexander R., and Eugene Thacker. The Exploit. University of Minnesota Press,
Lyotard, Jean- François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by
Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
Manovich, Lev. “Database as Symbolic Form.” Database Aesthetics, 1999, pp. 39–60.,
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Duckworth, 1992.