Review: Jasper Johns — Talley Dunn Gallery

[Originally published in The Dallas Morning News]

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Given the visual evidence of Jasper John’s work exhibited at Talley Dunn’s gallery, it seems straightforward to point out that the artist is infatuated with language. The prints he made after his encounter with the literary figure, Samuel Beckett, are widely noted. However, the pieces now on display demonstrate still more evidence that Johns is fascinated with communication of various kinds. He utilizes images of hands conveying sign language; he borrows from a letter van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo and, generally, uses large, blocky letters to occupy vast portions of his intaglios and prints.

Also, many images are used repeatedly. Johns asks that we look at things again and then again. It’s a visual version of stepping in the same stream twice — and, contrary to the ancient Greek dictum, Johns not only allows that luxury; he demands it. In his work, “Shrinky Dink 3,” we see two opposing profiles — one resonates with Picasso-like fingers, eyes and angled limbs and the other contains images of the aforementioned sign language.

Between the two profiles is yet another diminutive version of profiles, this time they appear as colorful dopplegangers hosting a waifish, almost alien, figure that is deployed multiple times across the top of the work. It appears to be a young boy delineated by a ground composed of still more profiles. Johns gives us worlds within worlds as well as some basic, subtle language with which to distill the work. By the way, the waifish figure is used in multiple pieces. It operates as a figurative trope that morphs into a seemingly endless series of dream-like forms.

He has explained:  “My experience of life is that it’s very fragmented; certain kinds of things happen, and in another place, a different kind of thing occurs. I would like my work to have some vivid indication of those differences.” Johns does precisely that; moreover, he carries things further. He emphasizes differences even in ostensible sameness. Thus, he poses more and more scenarios with similar and ricocheting imagery. What he discloses with one hand, he conceals with the other.

This play with openness and enigma is akin to language itself. It conceals as much as it reveals; in fact, its radiance lies in the interstices, in the liminal space, between the known and unknown. Johns plays in that same rich ground and pulls us into the abundant zone of communication and accompanying mystery. It’s a splendid place to reside, if only briefly.

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