Language is a funny thing, an abstract collection of arbitrary signs. Physical embodiments of communication—diaries, illuminated manuscripts, text strings stored to the cloud—define and structure the variegated ways in which we pass down language. This is how things come to mean what we take them to mean.
In Recalling the Chimaera (up through June 5 at Brooklyn’s Amos Eno Gallery), Candace Jensen, Thomas Little, and Coleman Stevenson explore the history, theory, and practice of transcription in all its forms. Stevenson and Jensen are writers in addition to visual artists—their textual work, including broadsides and hand-bound books, limns the exhibition with fragments of narrative guidance as they traverse the permeable boundary between word and image. Theirs is a project of meaning as much as it is of design.
Chimaerical Poem by Coleman Stevenson, 2022.
Stevenson’s works are perhaps the most closely aligned with traditional language. Yet while her visual art draws heavily from her poetry, she works these lines of verse into forms that teeter on the edge of obscuring the words themselves. Letters arranged in logical sequence become thickly enmeshed mats of language that eschew legibility for visceral texture.
Crossing I: Into Spirit (from the Crossing series) by Coleman Stevenson, 2022.
Recalling the Chimaera is a highly collaborative exhibition: it was developed between the artists in tandem and, due to the pandemic, largely over Zoom. In this way, it becomes a kind of epistolary manuscript—a visual log of thought, a collaborative record of translated distance, a conceptual time-sequence graph. Conversation and its transcriptions take surprising forms.
Despite the imposed technologization of COVID-era communication, these pieces bear the aspect of the deeply ancient. Little’s inkblots resemble the Lascaux cave paintings in texture and shade; Jensen’s intricately rendered beasts on deer and goatskin parchment leap from the pages of illuminated manuscripts; Stevenson’s calligraphy suggests the delicate, swooping lines of ink-wash Tang dynasty scrolls. The artists’ collective attention to the discrete, deliberate act of mark-making—their deep historical knowledge of color, form, and line—enables this fluid descent into time.
Original Physarum Inkblot Dialogue by Thomas Little, 2021.
E Turtle Island Earth Element (from Beasts of Sound Made Flesh) by Candace Jensen, 2021.
The very title of Jensen’s series—Beasts of Sound Made Flesh—can be read as a key to the theory underlying Recalling the Chimaera. The collection is a small, precious bestiary that recalls elements of the oral tradition: the physical embodiment of language through transcription and illustration, the old mystical aspect of storytelling. A beast of sound is a myth, an idea, a wild and transient thought. Enfleshing it—capturing and transmitting its likeness—necessarily tames and constricts it. The beast is the signified; the image its signifier.
Where does a line derive its meaning? Where does script—scribbling, sketching, loose experimentation—become manuscript? There is a semiotic science to these existential questions of writing, art, design: an alchemy of parts. Like the mythical chimaera from which the exhibition takes its name, Jensen, Coleman, and Little orchestrate a phase change. Collectively, they transfigure disparate pieces into a new whole.
While all three artists examine the alchemical relationship between concept and form, Little—who formulates inks and pigments from a variety of materials, including firearms he takes out of circulation—is the practical chemist. Upon initial inspection, his works also seem to be the farthest removed from what we recognize as text. Outside of the series Diagramed Inkblots, which sees Little annotate Rorschach-like prints, traditional language is completely absent from his work.
Diagramed Inkblot by Thomas Little, 2018.
Yet Little describes the core of his collection as “dialogues”: conversations with his collaborator, a slime mold from the swamps of North Carolina (Physarum polycephalum). Their relationship is one of artistic symbiosis and experimentation; Little notes that while most slime molds are attracted to valerian—to the point where they will forgo food in favor of the root—this particular species turns out to be valerian-repelled.
Illuminated Trans-species Document by Thomas Little, 2018.
The thin capillary-like lines we see on the page are actually the tracks left behind by the slime mold—the pigment that the organism deposited while fleeing the valerian root. It turns the paper into something akin to skin, something even more recognizably organic than the preserved animal hides upon which Jensen illustrates her beasts.
Little calls this a “trans-species document.” Perhaps it is, in fact, a text in its own right. Perhaps language is a trail, an embodied history—through marks on paper, approximating life.