Past Exhibitions

Visual Scripts

Shir Meller-Yamaguchi

Visual Scripts
Curator: Shir Meller-Yamaguchi
11/2013 – 4/2014

Between Painting and Writing
The exhibition “Visual Scripts” explores the affinities between writing and painting in the cultures of the Near and Far East, and some of its manifestations in Israel art.
Representation and language, the multiplicity of languages and their relativity, the relationship between signifier and signified, and the boundaries between the verbal language and the visual language have been at the core of the postmodern discourse. The exhibition sets out to explore the encounter between writing and painting, the point where the verbal becomes visual.
Painting gave rise to script. It was an initial phase in the evolution of script into a system of accepted signs and the organization of the external reality into a continuous sequence underlain by regularity and cyclicality. Writing translates the perceptible world into symbolic representation, shifting it to the world of spirit and thought. The birth of writing in the Near East some five thousand years ago thus marks a crucial stage in the development of human culture, indicating a capacity for conceptual abstraction. The Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Sumerian Cuneiform, and the Chinese characters are pictograms which initially depicted the concrete world, and gradually began to signify sounds and syllables in simplified lines. At the outset, script spanned hundreds of complex signs, and the art of writing was reserved to a select few, granting them power and prestige.
According to Roland Barthes in his “Variations on Writing,” writing is characterized by an innate contradiction: on the one hand, it represents institutional systems of accumulated knowledge in human society which result in domination and discrimination; on the other hand, it is tied with the sensuality and pleasure innate to writing, which is typified by refinement and balance between body and soul. Writing, like painting, is a representation at once internal and external. The drawing hand conveys a state of mind, the individual’s nature and mindset. At the same time, it organizes the sensory, multidimensional world by means of the line or sign. The exhibition illustrates how pictograms and ideograms from the cultures of the Near and Far East resonate in the works of the participating Israeli artists.
The first cluster of works in the exhibition is centered on script which oscillates between personal representation and predesignated signs. Nurit David creates an abstract script originating in nature, like the Chinese characters. Chinese calligraphy serves as a point of departure for the development of Nona Orbach’s personal sign language, in which the image constantly changes. Moshe Castel departs from cuneiform and ancient Hebrew script to an abstract geometrical array of signs, whereas Avraham Ofek creates a hieroglyphic language all his own, in which meaningful symbols are repeated. Kazuo Ishii inscribes Japanese characters in two types of script—restrained and ancient versus flowing and erupting. The writing on Anisa Ashkar’s face renders her a calligraphic painting, carrying her cultural identity with her wherever she turns.

The term “handwriting” is especially significant in the current era in which the keyboard has replaced the hand, generating mechanical uniformity. Handwriting conveys the writer’s character: the rhythm, letter shape, pressure, and density are unique to each individual. In art too, “handwriting” attests to a personal style and a solid visual language. Artworks from the early 20th century onward reflect the artists’ search for a personal handwriting as well as the infiltration of script-like signs into painting. Thus, for example, symbolic forms and recurring signs float in the painterly space of Paul Klee and Joan Miró.
Another example of the relationship which evolved between script and painting is the practice of automatic writing and automatic drawing a-la André Masson and the Surrealists, which free the artist from the shackles of logic to create directly from the subconscious in a free, genuine manner. Action painting, which emerged in the United States, likewise emphasized freehand gestures as a means to eliminate the traditional distinction between signifier and signified in painting. Action painters, like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, were influenced by Japanese calligraphy, in which they found a unity between artist and work as well as aesthetic qualities of spontaneity and singularity.
Script, like painting, stems directly from the body, expressing an internal rhythm. According to Roland Barthes, in his “Variations on Writing,” in the common beginning of script and art were the rhythm, orderly notation, pure punctuation. Barthes compares writing modes in the west and in the east, maintaining that in the west writing was performed in subjugated bodily posture, whereas in the east writing has been tied, from the very outset, with painting.
Belle Shafir and Avishay Ayal create a script comprising imaginary characters which organically grow and evolve into a secret language, a private code. Both artists juxtapose this sign language with a realistic representation. The set of signs gradually engulf the image, expanding across the entire space.
Asaf Setty in his video piece Hebrew Stenography, and Yael Balaban, who uses her Scribing Machine to simultaneously write and draw a script-line that whirls around itself, allude ironically to the act of quick writing intended to save time in an era of fast advancement, yet ultimately result in illegible writing which is thus akin to drawing. Avivit Ballas Baranes’s script is a secret language whose meaning is known to the artist alone, while Meirav Davish Ben Moshe’s script ladders from The Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah) are inscribed directly on the wall, at once revealing and concealing the Hebrew letters’ ability to create a world.

Writing Remembers
Language and script contain layers of cultural memory. That which was written will remain as evidence long after we are gone. The Hebrew alphabet offers an extraordinary example of script that was passed on from generation to generation and was preserved for centuries as a sacred tongue, although it was not used as a spoken everyday language. Following the revival of Hebrew in modern Israel, ancient manuscripts were found, offering a connection to the surviving origins of cultural memory. These finds left their imprint on such artists as Moshe Castel, whose works combine ancient Hebrew characters alongside an abstract array of imaginary signs.
As part of the secularization of the Hebrew language, many Israeli artists began incorporating script in their works, influenced by Pop and Conceptual art. The biblical prohibition on image making in the second commandment was always a “stowaway” in the journey of Israeli art, lending the written word an advantage in the cultural field. Emptied of its traditional contents, the language of painting adopted the alphabet as a vehicle representing an additional aspect of reality, where artists could criticize and challenge acceptable norms and values, or voice their social and political views. The frugal monochromatic painting of the 1970s allotted writing a central role, often waiving images in favor of writing. Spontaneous, direct writing in paintings became a conduit for an inner truth.
In order to create anew one must first erase. Relating to script as memory, erasure becomes a key component in the work of Thirtsa Ullman, Hedva Harechavi, and Orna Millo. Millo paints verses from Psalms by means of erasure, blurring the words with their mirror images, thus transforming them into pre-script signs. Ullman writes in black and erases in white, layer upon layer, oscillating between an orderly Hebrew script and calligraphic brush strokes. Harechavi erases drafts of her poems, transforming them into a painterly script comprising dots and lines which reflects changing inner rhythms.
Naftali Golomb, Hadassa Goldvicht, and Daniel Ben-Hur challenge the view of script as a closed, fixed system of accepted signs. They orchestrate personal, live, dynamic encounters with letters as forms, sounds, movement, and matter, encounters whose point of departure is openness, naiveté, and an honest quest for the moment before script becomes a language.