I have often had conflicted responses to text-
based art. On one hand, I appreciate its role as one of the
hallmarks of conceptualism, helping to free art from its
reliance on the object. On the other, I find it boring.
In this brief note, I detail how I resolved this tension in my
own experiments with text-based art and the result of
that process.
The past few decades have witnessed a
proliferation of contemporary art with text as its basis.
One can find text in oil on canvas, in frames, in light
boxes, affixed to the wall in vinyl lettering, as
instructions, in scrolling LED, on industrially produced
street signs, in neon, on tombstones and in other
manifestations too numerous to elaborate here.
I felt that the totality (as opposed to individual
instances) of text-based art had the cumulative effect of
being visually uncharacteristic and somewhat
redundant. I saw words as too closely tethered to their
meaning, often lacking any fresh sense of the visual. If
I were going to look at words, I reasoned, I would
rather read a book.
A visit to a Korean restaurant in San Francisco
offered a revelation. Presumably by mistake, the waiter
offered me a version of the menu in Korean. I can
neither read and write, nor speak, Korean, but I found
myself fascinated by the formal properties of the text. I
marveled at the order, the array of shapes and the
knowledge that this deliberately organized schema of
marks was conveying meaning to someone, but not me.
I recalled how others unfamiliar with Asian
languages are fascinated by their form as distinct from
what they signify, as evidenced by the legion of people
wearing Chinese character tattoos of questionable
interpretation. To me, this Korean-language menu was
formal abstraction on a laminated board. To those who
understood the language, it meant lunch.
At that moment, and with Cairo, Yucatan, Judd,
Stella, Kruger, Turing, Wiener, Kosuth, Haring and
Basquiat in mind, I determined to make the English
language as unfamiliar as the words on that menu. I
would render it as abstract, and yet readable, by
conjuring a new set of rules.
My research quickly revealed that creating a
logographic system (such as Chinese characters) was
not tenable. I didn't have the luxury of centuries to
develop an entire constellation of unique glyphs
associated with single concepts.
Instead, I re-imagined the alphabet. I created
letters that are discernable by their edges and arranged
them in a nested manner to form words, each letter
inside the one that precedes it. I call this system,
Englyph. Englyph is not a new language, but a writing
system made with the specific intent of introducing a
fresh visual form to text-based artwork, while still
conveying meaning.
Much has been made recently of 'data
visualization,' wherein certain amounts of statistical
information are visualized in such a way as to clarify,
streamline and make it understandable. Englyph is a
reverse of that process: a means of 'data
As for the meal of bibimbap I ordered from
the English translation of the menu, it was the best
I've had.