Kenneth Goldsmith + Graham Gillmore: Whose Words?

Fall, 1998
by Debra Bricker Balken

If the use of language in visual art has acquired a bad rap-shaded by the weighty utterances of many Conceptual and Post-Conceptual artists-then the work of Graham Gillmore and Kenneth Goldsmith emerges as a relieving antidote. Composed of a mix of quirky texts derived from varied sources such as Iyrics for popular music, the internet, tabloids, newspaper headlines, advertising, novels, jokes, theoretical tracts and their own diaries and notebooks, both artists have reinvigorated a moribund, or at least tired, genre of art. Through similar strategies but differing formal means and aesthetic results, these two artists have approached language as a corporeal entity, a medium with a distinct physicality that generates random (rather than fixed) meaning and its own poetics.

In Gillmores drawing "The Basic Idea," for example, fragmented, partial and sometimes complete sentences that the artist has either composed, appropriated or altered are splayed in descending fashion on vintage ledger paper that retains entries from the accounts of some elusive, bygone business. One column of text that Gillmore has superimposed on this used paper reads: "The general feeling of this piece is more or less consistent with or parallel to roughly speaking that thing that I am attempting to render;" another states: "Some semblance of meaning generally speaking of exactly that thing I am trying to say..." While this overlay of offhanded psycho-babble on now meaningless factual information, adds to the sense of indeterminacy and chance that informs all of Gillmore's work, the seeming chaos is contained through a number of structural devices.

Gillmore has separated and ordered his scattered descriptions within biomorphic shapes or "thought balloons"' in alternating red, blue and green colors. The resemblances of these colored patterns to female genitalia, to fallopian tubes and ovarles, is not coincidental. Gillmore's clusters of language and bulbous forms are purposefully eroticized, intended to evoke the female body, the locus both of male sexual fantasy and creativity. But these gendered groupings of text-taken venously from Harlequin romance novels, porn magazines, popular music (that Gillmore himself has written), literature (titles and lines from Oscar Wilde and Choderlos de Laclos run through some of these works) as well as his own journals and musings-operate more on a metaphoric level, alluding to the ultimately fragmented and sometimes disconnected nature of human experlence. Gillmore has been quick to state that he doesn't want his "work to be about gender politics or fifties design. I'm looking for a more authentic subject matter, and that subject matter for me is how human beings relate and don't relate to each other."'

While the sound bites and colloquial discourse that make up Gillmore's drawings and paintings have a familiar, even aphoristic ring-ubiquitous spins on failed seductions and vulnerable emotional states-their usage is common and pervasive enough that the artist is able to concretize his texts as physical objects. Gillmore has admitted that he is "more interested in the way the words look than how they sound" His paintings, in particular, reinforce the material, corporeal dimension of his work. For instance in "Tara," a work of oil and enamel on masonite, the free-floating, disjunctive combinations of sayings such as "A R closes the biggest deal of his life. R accidentally opens up another can of worms" are gouged into the wood, unsettling the translucent, sensous surfaces of these paintings, while endowing each area of text with its own distinct physical identity.

Kenneth Goldsmith's drawings, by contrast, dispense with the (pop) psychology and familair emotion of Gillmore's work while similarly pursuing text as a visual subject. His five drawings included here are composed of cut letters that form words, sentences and passages from Fidget, a multimedia performance which grew out of Goldsmith's collaboration with Theo Bleckmann for The Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, New York this past June. Goldsmith's libretto for Fidget consists of the transcription of tape recorded descriptions of every movement made by his body during a twelve hour period. The text of these descriptions is strikingly terse and clinical. At 12:00 PM, for example, Goldsmith recorded: "Breathe while grasping. Elbow out. Hand down. Pour coffee. Elbow down. Hand up. Back on back. Hands on arms of chair slide back. Arms stretches. Grasps milk. Elbow down. Elbow up. Elbow down. Arms stretch. Elbow down. Elbow on chair. Chair of elbow. Hand on hand. Legs cross...

Stripped of rhetorical features such as adjectives, adverbs and qualifying phrases, Goldsmith's text for Fidget, ironically, manages to convey something of the anxiety and disequilibrium he eventually experiences during this marathon self-performance. The body, as Goldsmith reveals in this work, is a constantly fidgeting mechanism. And, when language is employed to describe its ceaseless movements and activity, it assumes its own sensate traits and materiality.

If Gillmore's work relies upon unleashing aspects of his subjectivity, then Goldsmith's drawing by contrast is based entirely on observation, emptied of emotion and expression. The structure that he imposes on his work by delimiting the length of each sentence results in a highly controlled, even conventionalized format. Moreover, these compact, tidy descriptions-unlike Gillmore's seemingly unedited texts which hover randomly in an amphorous space-exist on clean, white (and sometimes colored) sheets of paper. Although cut by hand, the letters here appear to have been mechanically made, a characteristic that also adds to the sense of anonymity and near elimination of the artist's voice.

Goldsmith's work also draws on a mix of popular and high-brow sources. The literary inventions folded into the writings of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett clearly exist in the background of these drawings, suggesting novel syntactical arrangements and grammatical devices. But while Fidget is drawn entirely from tape recorded descriptions, unlike some of Goldsmith's preceding pieces, such as 73 Poems, Soliloquy and the manuscript for his book No 111 2 7 93 - 7.22 96-which combine colloquial aphorisms, lines from popular songs and advertising copy along with evocations from books by Joyce and other literary figures-debased references and narrative twists nonetheless still occupy a revealing place in this work. In the last hour (22:00PM) of this day of verbal documentation, the artist becomes drunk, a reaction to the unnerving effects of this routinized process. Goldsmith's speech degenerates into a jumble of incoherent sounds that are configured in sentences such as "wollawS. TcartnoC. DnirG. xaler sway. wollawS. pil fo cra gniwollof tel ot htuom fo edis thgir morf gnivom pil reppu ssorcs snir eugnoT Eyelids close."

But even these scrambled words, with all their suggestive chaos, become interestingly tidied, canalized into either clipped sentences or monosyllables placed in a clean, undifferentiated visual space. Deprived of explicit meaning, these letters, set in relief against the same colored or white background, acquire the attributes of a body, a work of sculpture with its own physicality (In the Applet version of Fidget on the web, these sentences and words are set in motion, a feature that likens the computer to the body)

Goldsmith has noted that "one of the occupational hazards of being a text artist is that your work is going to look like everyone else's-there are only 26 forms that you can use." It becomes almost impossible, then, given these finite means to produce what Goldsmith refers to as a "visually original statement." But if anonymity is one of the outgrowths of employing the alphabet, then Goldsmith also knows that "the art world is lazy in terms of reading the art world wants a new visual kick. It's annoying."

But however depersonalized these drawings seem, Goldsmith, like Gillmore, has redirected the endgame strategies of many artists who utilized text in the 1970s and 1980s. While stripped of literary embellishment- at least in his Fidget series-Goldsmith's drawings are ironically elegant, what with these word formations alluding to a metaphoric corporeal presence. Similarly, Gillmore's paintings and drawings are inherently aesthetic, however cheesy his material, lost as these texts are in a colored liquid space. And while different modernist traditions are tapped by each artist-Joyce, Stein, Beckett, Cage and Concrete Poetry in the case of Goldsmith; Surrealism, the Beats, and Graffiti are precedents for Gillmore-certain areas of commonality, especially Dada, in addition to popular culture establish correspondences between the two. But more importantly, their insistence that language is basically material (rather than ephemeral) connects the concerns of Goldsmith and Gillmore, a link that few contemporary artists have explored.

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