My curiosity about signing and language and the brain is one of the many reasons I’m interested in exploring sign language as an artist. In my humble and limited experience signing with Daisy, I have postulated that signing with her allowed both of us to communicate our messages much more expressively that words. Because this kind of talking has everything to do with looking and facial/body expression, it seems that telling a story or a feeling involves a physical reenactment of it. Daisy and I have had conversations in sign that made us both cry unexpectedly. (I want to be clear that this is something very different [I think] than communicating in with a deaf person in a deaf community, of which I claim to have no knowledge of or entitlement to, respectfully.)
Now, to google “Jasper Johns sign language.”
The words from the piece are borrowed from a letter sent by Vincent Van Gogh to his friend, Emile Bernard. (Knowing Jasper Johns, there is probably significance in the fact that he is not using his own letters for the piece.) Johns ordered a rubber stamp set of the sign language alphabet, redrew them, and then sent his version back to the company, which then manufactured and resent him a version of his own set. In an interview from the Financial Times by Julie Belcove, Johns explains that the “meaning is in the making” and leaves interpretation to the viewer. Belcove points out that the sign alphabet could be an evolution of his practice of signing his work in stencil (consistent with the post-AbEx or “neo-dadaist” sort of hands-off/death-of-the-author concept from work throughout his career.) I really liked the interpretation by Jane Panetta in Art in America Magazine:
“The use of this alternate alphabet represents a new engagement on the part of the artist- a reworking of his recurring hand print (which appears in the diptych)… Johns has appropriated these hand signs as a new, malleable vocabulary with which to again challenge expected and straightforward meaning within his work.”
In summary, thank you, Jasper Johns, for surprising me with some beautiful new work and for adding a new conceptual challenge to my upcoming installation with Miss Daisy Stewart.