The Power of the Written Word: Our Top 5 Artists Using Text in Their Work

A picture paints a thousand words. But sometimes, in the right hands, just a few words can conjure up a myriad of images. They can speak to politics, gender, humour, subversiveness and sometimes hope.

A picture paints a thousand words. But sometimes, in the right hands, just a few words can conjure up a myriad of images. They can speak to politics, gender, humour, subversiveness and sometimes hope.

For decades artists have interlaced, replaced and even removed images from paintings in place of text. For some, the power of the written word is irrevocably woven into contemporary life. It is within consumerism, advertising, journalism, comedy and even political campaigning, so why not art?

We take a look at 5 contemporary artists using words to dramatic, witty and surreal effect.

 

David Shrigley

“I think the best kind of humour is the kind of humour where you don’t quite understand what you’re laughing at – you intuitively know that there’s something there that’s both funny and ‘other’.”

Born in Macclesfield and studying at Glasgow’s School of Art between 1988-91, David Shrigley now lives and works in Brighton.

His work draws on the British tradition of satire. He creates drawings, animations and sculptures that reflect the absurdity of contemporary life, using witty, dark and sometimes anarchic slogans. Painted with an impatient naivety, childlike scrawls become direct, mesmerising and curious musings which stop the viewer in their tracks, if only for a second, to consider a bigger picture.

In 2013 Shrigley was nominated for the Turner Prize and in 2016 his sculpture, 'Really Good', sat atop Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth as the winning commission for the UK’s most talked-about contemporary art prize. The sculpture, a giant bronze thumbs-up with a comically elongated thumb was based on one of Shrigley’s wry and witty drawings.

 

The Connor Brothers

"Most people are happy to think, 'this is the way it is'. But it really isn't. Who knows the truth of anything?"

The Connor Brothers are fictional characters Franklyn and Brendan Connor, whose work blurs the line between fiction and reality. Through humour and dark pathos, they make us question how we experience things and how we construct our own sense of reality, by giving us a glimpse of the infinite possibilities surrounding us. 

By recontextualising the artworks of 1950's dime novels, reworking them to give new and unsettling meanings, Hollywood heroes and vintage pin-ups are paired with wry, witty and sometimes dark captions, echoing contemporary sentiment through these romantic and nostalgic subjects. Their sentiments seem to strike to the core of contemporary life, encapsulating what we all feel.

Christopher Wool

Born in Chicago in 1955, American artist Christopher Wool became an artworld sensation in the 1980s whilst living and working in New York. Made famous for his word paintings, these giant aluminium panels painted white, overlaid with bold, black capitalised letters. The text was stencilled on in such a way, in continuous runs without punctuation, which resulted in uneven breaks in the words at the edge of the canvas. This created abstract patterns but made the text almost unreadable. Through their ambiguity, these monochrome abstract paintings make the viewer work hard to uncover the sentiment,  but the pay-off is worth it. With sardonic and cynical quotes such as, “SELLTHEHOUSESELLTHECARSELLTHEKIDS” and, “THEHARDERYOULOOKTHEHARDERYOULOOK” Wool’s ability to turn dark and poignant phrases into captivating paintings makes him one of the greatest.

 

Barbara Kruger

“I'm fascinated with the difference between supposedly private and supposedly public and I try to engage the issue of what it means to live in a society that's seemingly shock-proof, yet still is compelled to exercise secrecy.”

Barbara Kruger is an American Conceptual artist. Her iconic black and white, ‘Futura Bold Oblique’ font text and image-based paintings, often accented with a blood-red banner, convey a direct feminist cultural critique, whilst also examining stereotypes and behaviours surrounding consumerism, using mass media and advertising slogans and imagery. By pairing these slogans with readily accessible and familiar imagery, Kruger uses language to convey her ideas through multiple sources such as t-shirts, posters and billboards.

Slogans such as, “I shop therefore I am”, “Your body is a battleground” and “We don’t need another hero,” show Kruger’s aggressive and direct approach to communication. 

 

Ed Ruscha

“There are things that I’m constantly looking at that I feel should be elevated to greater status, almost to philosophical status or to religious status. That’s why taking things out of context is a useful tool for an artist. It’s the concept of taking something that’s not subject matter and making it subject matter.”

A giant in the contemporary art world, Ed Ruscha moved to Los Angeles from Oklahoma in 1956 to study at the Chouinard Art Institute. Dubbing himself an “abstract artist ... who deals with subject matter,” he abandoned a move into abstract expressionism unlike many of his contemporaries and looked instead at how advertising brought words, as form, symbol and material, to the forefront of painting. Working in diverse media, Ruscha began to create abstract landscapes, American in their feel, but removed enough so as to become an ‘everywhere’. With the application of philosophical and poignant phrases, advertising motifs and graphic symbols, Ruscha had created a genre of painting in which we could all place ourselves.

During the 1960s Ruscha explored the noise and onomatic power of language with a painterly effect. The monosyllabic and comedic sound of ‘OOF’ (1962-63), became a painting which epitomized this period of work. The bold block lettering painted in a rich bright yellow is placed on top of a royal blue background. It is a painting which elicits a verbal response from the view, the response being an almost automatic - “OOF!”.

Words are powerful tools, and when used within art they can leave a lasting impression. These artists use them to get their vastly different messages across, understanding that while abstract is all well and good, sometimes words just say it best. 


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