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Issue 211

Is Modernity a History of the Unwritten?

An exhibition at Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, explores writing’s role in embodiment and spiritual grounding

BY Harry Burke in EU Reviews , Reviews | 25 MAR 20

‘Scrivere Disegnando’ (Writing by Drawing) at Geneva’s Centre d’Art Contemporain surveys the phenomenon of illegible writing, which the installation renders decipherable through thoughtful trails of referentiality. The exhibition is assembled with Lausanne’s Collection de l’Art Brut, an archive of self-taught and outsider artists that traces its roots to Jean Dubuffet’s obsessive commitment to anti-academic art. With work by over 90 artists, there is a welcome mix of familiar and lesser-known names.

Brooklyn-based artist Steffani Jemison’s magnetic multipart installation ‘Same Time’ (2015–ongoing) reminded me of Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Brushstrokes’ series (1965–66), which notably refigured the painterly scribble of abstract expressionism as a pop quotation. Each series utilizes citation, albeit in converse ways: Jemison thickens – whereas Lichtenstein flattens – the sign. For ‘Same Time’, Jemison has reproduced opaque glyphs from janitor-turned-artist James Hampton’s notebooks, penned in his invented script ‘Hamptonese’, on transparent backgrounds, underscoring the viscosity of Hampton’s hand.

‘Scrivere Disegnando (Writing by Drawing)’, 2020, installation view, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève; photograph: Mathilda Olmi © Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève


The placement of an untitled drawing by J.B. Murray (c.1985) near to ‘Same Time’ conveys the exhibition’s polytempic ambitions. Murray was an illiterate tenant farmer from rural Georgia, who experienced vivid religious hallucinations. His thicket of asemic inscriptions oozes the blues and hints at a friction between the expressive depth of black agrarian poetics and the measured eclecticism of postmodern display.

The life’s work of the Swiss medium Hélène Smith (a pseudonym for Catherine-Elise Müller) is a thematic touchstone. Smith’s automatic writings inspired surrealists like André Breton, while the psychologist Théodore Flournoy was fascinated by her alleged extra-terrestrial communications, which he wrote about in a study on Smith titled From India to the Planet Mars (1900). Displayed in a vitrine by the exhibition’s entrance, Smith’s automatic drawings in Flournoy’s book at once synthesize and scramble the 20th century’s discursive pillars of psychoanalysis and semiotics in ways that evocatively contextualize the queer world-making of contemporary artists like Elijah Burgher. Burgher’s three double-sided paintings – Eden Eden Eden Eden Eden, Garden of Hanging Gods and The Perineum Is the Door! (all 2018–20) – are composed of layers of shapely sigils on canvas drop-cloths, with pornographic photographs depicting ink-splattered male nudes, produced in collaboration with Los Angeles-based artist Richard Hawkins, also affixed to the busy partitions. Burgher has used the cloths, initially installed to protect the floor of his Chicago studio, for rituals exploring the ‘chaos magic’ of occultists like Austin Osman Spare.

’Scrivere Disegnando (Writing by Drawing)’, 2020, installation view, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève; photograph: Mathilda Olmi © Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève

At around the age of 50, German farmer Barbara Suckfüll started hearing ‘telephone voices’ – intrusive commands to scream, run, draw and perpetrate violence. At Schloss Werneck psychiatric hospital, she committed the voices to paper, drafting bird’s-eye impressions of quotidian items such as spoons and dishes over rows of cursive handwriting. The practice proved therapeutic, attesting to writing’s role in embodiment and spiritual grounding. The untitled ideograms from 1910 presented here are taut with a sensitivity to domestic entrapment.

In the exhibition literature, curators Andrea Bellini and Sarah Lombardi refer to the ‘shadow side’ of writing when discussing the unruly objects of their enquiry – referencing a metaphor used by Carl Jung for the unconscious. Their other explicit theoretical rivet is Roland Barthes’s description of jouissance, defined in The Pleasure of Text (1973) as the self-oblivion that comes with pleasure. A robust, bountiful celebration of the indecipherable mark, the survey’s forbidding implication is that modernity is a history of the unwritten. It hesitates, still, to extrapolate further. ‘Din is discourse’, wrote poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant in Caribbean Discourse (1981), identifying the expropriative grammar of civil speech. It is this observation that haunts the show.

‘Scrivere Disegnando’ is on view at Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, until 3 May 2020.

Main Image: ‘Scrivere Disegnando (Writing by Drawing)’, 2020, installation view, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève; photograph: Mathilda Olmi © Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève

Harry Burke is an art critic and a PhD candidate in art history at Yale University, New Haven.