The Language of Art at FACTION in Harlem

“Visual Language” at FACTION Art Projects in Harlem brings together a broad spectrum of painting, sculpture, and design that combine word and image and includes notable artists like Jenny Holzer, Shepard Fairey, and the Guerrilla Girls. Taken together, these vastly different approaches toward language, at turns ironic, trendy, historical, satirical, tap into several important, ongoing conversations, from gun violence in America to the public reckoning with #MeToo to “alternative facts.” This bicoastal exhibit, presented in collaboration with Subliminal Projects in East Los Angeles, is on view at both galleries through October 6.

Irony is alive and well in the work of D*Face and Wayne White. Created after Columbine, “Peace is a Dirty Word,” 2015, by D*Face is a bronze sculpture of a gun whose barrel was impressively twisted to spell the word “peace” in a loopy cursive. And though no bullet could pass through its winding chambers, its message, a narrow yet powerful critical commentary on gun violence in America, hits the mark.

“Good Looking People Have Fun Without You,” 2014, by Wayne White almost reads backward. Juxtaposed over a panoramic painting of a Civil War battalion, the title is spelled out in blockish 3D text, like something out of Powerpoint. The text bounds over the river like a rainbow and, because of the linear perspective White employs, the last few words, “Without You” are largest and loudest and first catch the attention of the viewer.

White’s work has a biting humor, but these two words, “Without You,” suggest a more nuanced commentary on social alienation, which has contemporary and historical resonance. Apart from alluding to the experience of FOMO (fear of missing out) exacerbated by social media, the slogan critiques once-celebrated technologies like Facebook, whose stated mission is “to bring the world closer together,” but the real-world consequences associated with it suggest the opposite. This notion of social dissolution is further amplified by the historical framework of the Civil War, a period of moral turmoil for a racist nation, and a conflict that tattered and frayed the fabric of American society in ways that are still unraveling today.  

The proliferation of irony and political messaging seen in the work of Wayne White, D*Face, Shepard Fairey and Betty Tompkins is perhaps inevitable, given the economy of space a canvas provides. Under such constraints, language lends itself more readily in service of a message, rather than a narrative. Artworks by Jenny Holzer and Umar Rashid, however, are two notable exceptions.

Whereas several artists complement their images with words, Holzer’s conceptual work foregrounds language, its delivery and public reception. Although most well-known for her LED displays, her work in “Visual Language” draws inspiration from the street in the form of wheat paste posters and traffic signs. “The rich knifing victim can flip…,” 1981, mimics street signs in style (lettering) and form (type of metal, white background, rectangular frame). The content is at once poetic and political — it maintains a certain authoritative tone that steers public thought as if it were traffic. In full, the sign reads: “The rich knifing victim can flip and feel like the aggressor if he thinks about privilege. He also can find the cut symbolic or prophetic.”

In a style reminiscent of Basquiat, Umar Rashid’s paintings oscillate between the literal and the symbolic and come from a post-colonial perspective. “Zeninthing in the Time of Yeah! (The King and Queen of Harlem Assessing Their Dominion. Or, a Bright, and Electrifying 1793),” 2017, combines the visual storytelling techniques of Egyptian glyphs with elements of a superhero comic, to present a social and cultural history of Harlem. In a loose narrative schema, colonial garbs, trumpets, and pyramids act as visual motifs and are paired with disparate annotations that tie these visual symbols of power to a specific place and that place is Harlem. The center is dominated by two figures, a man in colonial garb and a woman in a towering blue headdress, and their eyes shoot liberating laser beams that “break!” and “pop!” the chains of shackled slaves kneeling below them.

It is easy to be cooly ironic or to throw in a trending phrase like “alternative facts” to appear relevant, but these declarative statements do little beyond making their point known. When compared with these more cocksure works, the Holzer and Rashid’s exploratory use of language makes space for interpretation, conversation, and deliberation and captures the shared aspects of language. These artworks convey not only the art of expression, but the art of listening.  

“Visual Language” is on view at FACTION Art Projects in Harlem through October 6. More information:

Founder: Louise Blouin


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