'Nude / Parade' (Tracey Williams Ltd, New York)
'All the World's Fighter Planes (Printed Matter, New York). Art in America, June 2006
Working from a live model generally results in visual imagery of some kind. Fiona Banner's medium, though, is words, so she undertook the exercise differently. Hiring a female model to pose nude, in several sessions starting last summer, Banner has been composing figurative text instead. One of several big and altogether engrossing surprises thus produced is that the living presence of a model can be made inescapably clear in prose.
Banner's word portraits are run-on sequences of short and slightly disjunctive descriptive fragments, set down in barely serviceable printed (not cursive) handwriting, grammar and spelling be damned. Remarkably and unmistakably, each phrase feels equivalent to the amount of visual information a single glimpse at a live model produces on a sheet of drawing paper: just as an artist looks at the subject, at the blank paper, and back to the subject; sets down a basic contour, starting at some arbitrary anatomical juncture, fills in details, and then adjusts them, so Banner looks, writes, and looks and writes some more. She lingers over passages that are hard to get right, and like any novice concentrates hard on details that don't in the end add up to a coherent body: hair, toes, veins under the skin, the color of shadows. Inevitably, the model moves, however slightly, and Banner notes her breathing, the way she shifts her weight a little (when standing), the slight movement of highlights and shadows.
Though the quality of Banner's prose seems improvisatory, much here is clearly deliberate. For instance, the shape of the text as a whole broadly reflects the body it describes, as in Nude Reclining (2006), which is written in graphite on a horizontal sheet of paper. Nearly 9 feet wide and more than 5 high, it was shown (at Tracy Williams's 4th Street space in Manhattan, a converted residence) with its bottom edge resting on the floor, spanning--or, sprawling across--a corner of a (domestic) room that seemed not quite big enough to accommodate it. Moreover, the writing in Nude Reclining begins, at the top, relatively well spaced, but gets progressively cramped, ending along the very bottom of the sheet in an indecipherable jumble of heavy, tightly jammed little letters. In other words, the portrait ends in shadow, with the weight of a big body--of text, and its subject--bearing down on it.
Though this too has the appearance of spontaneity, as if Banner hadn't left herself enough room to finish, it is not only wonderfully and quite artfully descriptive, but suspiciously like other canny things she has done before. Central to the way Nude Reclining works on the viewer is that standing at reading distance prevents you from taking in the portrait as a whole; to do that, you have to walk back and forth, tracking the very long lines of print. Most viewers will surely demur (there is a lot to read, and it is both heavily repetitive and hard to make out), choosing instead to bring only selective passages into focus. That way, the writing shades, in peripheral vision, into illegibility--put differently, it slips from text to image.
This is established territory for Banner, who has previously deployed big blocks of printed text, run-on and unpunctuated and thus hard to read consecutively and comprehensively, in scene-by-scene descriptions first of Vietnam war movies (Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, etc.), and then of pornography. These transcriptions, which began in the mid-'90s, took the form of drawings, prints, books and installations. With the current work, some new references come into play, including figure painters, from Lucian Freud to Jenny Saville, who similarly bring us nose-to-nose with unsparingly bared human bodies (Banner too is British). Thence it is not a long leap back to midcentury American abstractionists like Rothko and Newman who preferred their big paintings to be hung in small spaces so viewers were forced to stand too close to consider the expansive painted fields as iconic, objectlike wholes. Banner's point, in this company, would be that nothing militates against a gestalt reading of an inscribed surface as powerfully as discursive text. Not for nothing does she call them wordscapes.
If Banner's new works are (deeply, warily) engaged with canonical painting both figurative and abstract, they also extend longstanding interests of Banner's own. Nude Standing (2006)--which, naturally, occupies a vertical sheet of paper (and, moreover, was stood upright on the floor at the 4th Street space, its frame held in place by wire tied to eye hooks in the ceiling)--is more than just descriptive text. Beneath the handwritten portrait is a faint, spray-painted gray image of part of the tail fin of a fighter plane. Under the circumstances, it is easy to mistake for the slope of a woman's shoulder. But in other new work, Banner reverses the emphasis to focus on the aircraft. Upstairs at this venue there were two word portraits executed on salvaged Harrier Jump Jet tail fins, the abbreviated texts both incised and handwritten, in pencil and ink, on the dull gray metal. Jutting up evilly from the gallery's hardwood floor, Nude Fin 2004 and 2006 were cold and ominous as could be---almost more sharklike than military--and the contrast of their rivet-reinforced surfaces with the yielding bodies of the women described there was pronounced. But a third word-on-plane sculpture, Bird (2006), played up the avian nature of aircraft, using the surface of a Jaguar plane tail fin for a pert description of an affectionately observed bird.
Though the choice of support for these hybrid works might seem lightly circumstantial, Banner has pondered long and hard on military aircraft. At Tracy Williams's other, temporary venue, Banner displayed 100 plastic model airplanes, assembled (though left unpainted) by the artist mostly from commercial kits and hung from the ceiling as they are in boys' rooms around the world. Projected on the walls were the evocative names given these planes: Sea Hawk, Panther, Osprey, Black Hawk, Cougar. Also on the walls were 60 pencil drawings of fighter planes copied from photos in newspapers, all of the renderings as technically accomplished as they are expressively nuanced.
Additional recent drawings of fighter planes (Banner has been malting them since 1982) were on view at the bookstore Printed Matter, where Banner's recent publication, All the World's Fighter Planes 2006, was featured. An update of a 2004 publication, the new book (which recalls, as the model planes do even more strongly, Chris Burden's 1987 All the Submarines of the United States of America) reproduces newsprint photos of what the artist says are "every type of fighter aircraft currently in commission anywhere in the world." A video scans the book's contents, to the accompaniment of Hollywood war movie scores, which are as rousing as they are schmaltzy (a comparison with the soundtracks of pornography seems implicit). Also at Printed Matter was a section of the fuselage of a scrapped British fighter plane (the painted decorations--a target, a crown pierced by a dagger--are vintage) along with a trio of blue neon fighter planes titled Backfire (A Force of Nature), 2006. In the store's window, a pink plane (Neon Jet, 2006) flew solo above a flotilla of cardboard boxes, The World's All Fighter Planes (2006), on the sides of which Banner has deftly drawn more planes, along with clouds and some text, sometimes scrambling word order as in the title.
That the languages of violence and of sex share vocabularies; that the found poetry of warplanes' names, so many of them predatory birds and other noble, fleet carnivores, links them not only to the natural world but, specifically, to women (for whom "birds" is, especially in Britain, a common form of slang); that glamour, which has always facilitated war (and sex too), tends to dissolve on close inspection, are among the lessons (some well-worn) of Banner's new work. But she seems less interested in those intersections of languages that permit consolidation of meaning than in setting up textual collisions that put intelligibility under stress.
Banner is not altogether alone in this endeavor. Among artworks that have deployed words in ways that discourage simple readings, the early, run-on text paintings of Christopher Wool and the gathering storms of illegibility in Glenn Ligon's early stenciled works are perhaps best known and most relevant; visually, there is a kinship to Sean Landers's early work as well. Janice Krasnow has been executing word portraits on a commissioned basis for several years (though Krasnow's are as considered and concise--often just a handful of words, meticulously painted--as Banner's are prolix). And of course mixing up words and graphic experimentation in the service of invigorating the languages of poetry and visual art is at least as old as Futurism and Dada.
In fact it was partly the growing confusion of tongues in this cross-over territory that led Banner, in 1998, to a series of works based on full stops as represented in rations typefaces. Realized as both graphic images and sculptures, the greatly magnified periods, which reveal at enlarged scale a surprising variety of not-quite-round shapes, were an endpoint from which she has now retreated. Firmly back in the middle of the story, Banner seems intent on examining the fault lines of old-fashioned verbal realism. Henry James, look out.
"Nude" was on view at Tracy Williams's primary gallery [Mar 8-Apr. 22, 2006], "Parade" at Williams's temporary space [Mar 10-Mar. 31, 2006] and "All the World's Fighter Planes" at Printed Matter [Mar 11-Apr. 15]; all are in New York.