Each installment features a writer, artist, or curator discussing an underrated artist, artwork, movement, or museum.
"DEFRAGMENT" by Victor Roman
Today we’re with Lauren Elise Hirshfield, a curator and consultant, in conversation about text in contemporary art, including the influence of social media. You’ve referenced a few artists connected to this movement—Tracey Emin, Doug Aitken, Grace Miceli, and Victor Roman. When do you date this trend back to? When did you first come in contact with it, or at least take notice?
I started thinking more about words in contemporary art, especially in emerging art, maybe two years ago. Definitely the “trend” has come and gone over the last 50 some-odd years, although text has been used in art since the very beginning. Greats like Bruce Nauman and Daniel Johnston normalized the concept of words as art, but with the huge boom of post-modern abstraction and even now into zombie formalism, we sort of lost the excitement of pop art. So with the insanity of the internet takeover, what we think of as art got totally reinvented. And I feel like over the last few years especially, young artists totally embraced the chance to bring back that wave of pop/social commentary art through words. And it totally seeped back into the collector world, which is really cool! Living in NYC for the last 3+ years I’ve grown to love the nostalgia-filled, instant gratification of art by people like Grace Miceli, Victor Roman, and Nicole Ruggiero. Grace especially has helped define a new wave of artists who are supported heavily by social media to influence their work and the responding communities.
Bruce Nauman's "Human/Need/Desire"
How does this movement play on art for social media’s sake? How does it respond to our internet selves?
I think it’s a give and take; I think social media certainly played a huge part in it, but I think that initial boom has created a cyclical response yet to peak. One of my new favorite drawings from Grace is a Tampax box with the scent “Pumpkin Spice”. Such a simple adjustment, but references countless online interactions and jokes for a whole internet generation. Victor’s paintings reference the same crowds, with a wavy “SHE LIKED MY PHOTO FROM 68 WEEKS AGO” dancing across the canvas. It’s that angst and worry and stress that is so relatable, in one simple phrase. I think using text and dialogue for post-contemporary artists is about feeding into the “collective conscious” we’re all participating in. And that’s I think why there is this rise in text-based art. It’s an immediate side of the art world. Kind of like a one-liner. And our internet selves want nothing more than that.
Do you think this is an echo of the initial fruition of pop art? How does it differ?
There’s definitely a lot of overlap. Pop art in some ways was the Western world’s answer to a consumer-based lifestyle. Andy Warhol was commenting directly on a generation fully embracing the desire to buy buy buy. I think that a lot of artists using text today are also condensing whole social commentaries into one sentence, or even one word. The internet has made virtually anything available at any time, and we’re starting to reach the pinnacle of consumerism because of that. Doug Aitken’s END sculptures are a perfect, albeit daunting, example. Where it does differ though is much more in the emerging, DIY communities. A lot of my artist friends treat text more performative than anything else. It’s commentary of commentary. Whole poems scrawled on a page, or love letters to rappers. Brooke Wise sculpted a 6 foot tall copper page with a penned prose to Justin Bieber. Where the white cube artists reflect on a more universal conscience, young, self-made artists are using text to speak very personal and generational truths.
Andy Warhol's "SOMEBODY WANTS TO BUY YOUR APARTMENT BUILDING", ca. 1985–1986
It seems to be embracing social media as a networking and promotional tool - something that was once thought to be a bane. Do you agree that it’s that simple, or is there something deeper here?
I 100% believe social media has expanded the audience for artists, and has changed the way artists can present their work, but I don’t think that it’s that easy of a result. It’s definitely no longer taboo, in fact we’re seeing major galleries and museums even join Snapchat to reach more people at more hours. I’m all for art for social media’s sake. It’s a great stepping stone for institutions like The Met, who can now bring someone through the doors with a single image and feel that much more confident of educating that person. But of course it goes beyond. Texts in art pull from so many different sources—street culture and tags, literature, propaganda; so many social and political moments. Language is probably the most recognizable imagery after the human face. Our brains are wired to connect lines into symbols and letters. We are always trying to make sense of our surroundings, and the use of text in contemporary art simplifies that search. It’s a poignant way of connecting all of us.
How do the artists you mentioned use text and words in similar ways? How do they differ?
All of the artists I typically enjoy who use text are using it to relay a message. Whether it’s funny, passionate, or just plain depressing, they are all speaking to us, literally, through their work. Where I think they start to differ is in who is having the conversation. Tracey Emin’s cursive signs glow like bar signs, they beg to be read, to be consumed. They are tender thoughts and romantic desires, but they read like a thought in my head. Victor and Grace’s works are far more personal—still relatable, but through the painterly hand of each work, they are presented more as diary pages, or manifestos. I connect, I respond, but I respond to their words.