Infix: The Grammar of Insertion
So much of how the visual art is discussed or understood in the 20th century to the present has been based on the theorization about the function of language. Theorists like Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida among others have been instrumental in presenting language as a means to analyze visuality. This trope has been called the “linguistic turn” of the visual arts and has compared looking at art as a process of reading, where the work of art remains the central object to be ‘read’ like text.
The works of these theorists inform the development of this exhibition and borrow linguistic elements in framing the works of art exhibited and how this exhibition may be understood. Revolving around the linguistic concept of the infix, this exhibition looks at the works and processes of six Bay Area artists as infixes inserted within the global language of visual art and asks how these works of art and modes of production are affecting the way we talk and think about art.
This exhibition features the works of artists Renée Billingslea, E.G. Crichton, Lisa R. Gould, Willie Little, Lewis Watts, and the artist collaboration, BARRIONICS (Lily Anne Perez, Johanna Poethig, and Rico Reyes). Including photography, installation, sculpture, prints, video, and performance, Infix assembles some of the Bay Area’s most dynamic artists working in these media and engaging in themes such as identity and gender, perception and humor, place and specter, packaging and the grotesque, residue and culture.
What is an infix?
An infix is an affix that is inserted in the middle of a word. Unlike a prefix added at the beginning of a word or a suffix added at the end of a word, an infix is inserted in the middle of the word changing the structure of the root word consequently changing its function, whether it is a shift in tense, in subject/object relationship, or in meaning. A common occurrence in Tagalog and Filipino languages, this linguistic phenomenon is rare in English and in Romance languages.
The deployment of the concept of the infix creates a parallel between the linguistic function of an infix –in changing the tense, subject/object relationship of a word– with the function of the art object or practice being inserted in the panorama of the global art scene –in asserting its contemporaneity, shifting the subject/object relationship of the work of art, and pondering the function and processes of artists. Just as infixes are inserted into a word –to change its meaning by shifting its tense, subjectivity, or objectivity– these artworks inserted within the notion of Bay Area art and this exhibition inserted within the production of visual art knowledge changes how we ‘read’ these art objects and the way these ‘readings’ create an understanding about them.
The way we speak of works of art or artistic practices have been set by previous exhibitions and art writings. The precedents create a ripple affecting the future articulations of works of art and art exhibitions setting notions bounded by the limits of these writings. One strategy in changing this mode of articulation is to change the structure of the language, dismantling archaic vocabulary and deconstructing grand narratives. Using the phenomenon of the infix in a language where it does not naturally occur destabilizes the language opening up fissures for analysis.
Bay Area art has a way of inserting itself within the language of contemporary art, expanding the current vocabulary. If the Bay Area art scene acts like an infix, inserting itself within the word, then New York and London acts like a prefix, seeing itself before the word, and unlike Los Angeles, Chicago or Berlin, a suffix, an addition after the word. Each locale contributing differently to the language dependent upon the works of art that it presents.
Exhibition as Infix
This exhibition challenges the beholders to spend time to think about how the visual arts in the San Francisco Bay Area are articulated and asks the question, how critics and art writers in the past have framed the works of art made in the Bay Area, and how the Bay Area art scene have been contextualized within the larger art field? Mostly defined by its historical contributions to Abstract Expressionism, figurative painting, ceramics, and photography, or its occasional breakthrough from the underground scene, Bay Area art is confined within these two notions. From examining three critical texts, Thomas Albright’s, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980, Johnstone and Holzman’s, Epicenter: San Francisco Bay Area Art Now, and Sidra Stich’s, art-SITES San Francisco, it is inferred that the grand narratives that describe the San Francisco Bay Area art is hinged by the intersection of its sporadic contributions to past art movements, and to its perceived eccentric underground scene, thereby creating a set language, or a limited notion, that affects the continual development and articulation of Bay Area art.
Infix tries to break open this foreclosed articulation of the Bay Area art scene by focusing on media that by and large have taken a second position to painting’s popularity and importance and by breaking with traditional ideas of the avant-garde or the currency of the new and hip. The focus on sculpture, photography, and video/performance gives painting a respite from center stage to allow the exploration of other material and momentarily redirects the attention paid to Clifford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, and Barry McGee and to the Bay Area’s love affair with painting. The formal aspects of sculpture, photography, and video/performance are placed within a context of a continued exploration of the nature of these materials and its relationship with issues of identity, gender and sexuality, and history. The juxtaposition of varied objects within an exhibition creates a new constellation of interpretation as each body of work informs the other. For example, the works of Renée Billingslea and Willie Little have little formal similarities, but shown together the materiality of their work becomes more pronounced as the narrative structure of their works are exposed through the handling of similar content such as African American identity. The material nuances of bedazzled walking sticks and papier maché hats now share a common quality of bearing narratives.
Other Bay Area exhibitions periodically challenge the limitations that have been set by the grand narratives of Bay Area art with the 2008 SECA Art Award Exhibition presenting four Bay Area artists who are working in diverse media of digital art, social intervention, and installation, or the 2008 Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Bay Area Now 5 Exhibition including exhibitions as a source of artistic production. However, these exhibitions reinforces the art world’s obsession with the now and hip, privileging relatively young, emerging artists, thereby setting forth the idea that vital works of art are located in the province of youth and immaturity. Infix breaks this position by showing a multi-generational group of artists invested in a durational study of a subject and a continuous exploration and innovation of material.
Artwork as Infix
The works of art presented in this exhibition acts as infixes within the language of Bay Area art. Renée Billingslea’s work continues to address the artist’s relationship to issues of race. Working from archival images of lynching, Billingslea turns her attention to the lynch mob and questions the mentality of these spectators and those who witness them. The photographs of Lewis Watts reveal his work with archival photographs in the way he shows the landscape: as an archive of cultural imprints. Whether it is the gentrification of Harlem, or the destruction of New Orleans, Watts registers these disappearances and recovers them in the facades of buildings or in the faces of its inhabitants. The collaboration, BARRIONICS, redefines the archive by sourcing data from everyday experience. In this project, acting as sound archeologists, BARRIONICS undergoes a journey to excavate from different landscapes the sounds of the past.
Wood-carved walking sticks are tools of sojourning that have been imprinted in Willie Little’s imagination. His walking stick series uses this form but they are adorned with cockleburs, beads, glass, and glitter transforming a tool for storytelling into a storyteller. Indeed, stories may be extracted from various objects like walking sticks to household chemicals. E.G. Crichton places samples of household chemicals onto a glass plate and digitally scans them. The results are views of fantastical worlds from the cosmic to the microscopic, a solution to mundane domesticity. The household is repackaged in Lisa R. Gould’s photographs as she documents the detritus of daily domestic consumption. Emerging from her observations of consumption and consumerism, Gould captures the instances before consumption, the moments before they disappear; either discarded as refuse or consumed as commodity.
The use of the notion of the infix, opens up the standard way in which language is conjugated to fit the temporal and contextual frame in which it is placed, however, the works of art and how it is exhibited never reaches the closed reading that happens with reading text. The insertion of the infix opens the reading rather than closes the reading of the viewer by getting to the root of the matter. The infix changes the structure of the word and offers new meaning. The artists presented in this exhibition eloquently speak the language of art and successfully articulate specific perspectives that continue to expand the conversation about visual art and challenge our notions of the work of art and debunks the mythology of an artistic life.