Jasper Johns and Sign Language

JASPER JOHNS, FRAGMENT OF A LETTER, 2010I’ve been working with my friend, Daisy Stewart, on an idea centered around sign language, preparing for an upcoming exhibition at our Eight Folds studio at Noodleworks. She is pursuing a degree in Sign Language Interpretation, and she’s taught me a fair amount of sign language in our free time together. One project we were planning for was a letter written out with images of finger spelling. Imagine my surprise when I saw this piece today at the Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle, WA. If you can read the finger spelling signs on the piece on the left, you can see that the two messages are the same. I found that the message on the left can be read with surprising fluency, especially if I move my hand along with the pictures, like reading aloud. I wish I could see a picture of my own brain working to do this, as I wonder how far from my normal language centers this visual/tactile reading is taking place. This is sort of like how they say that memorizing lyrics to a song with a melody happens in a different part of the brain than memorizing text alone (sorry, no citation… look it up yourself.)

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.


This entry was written by Sarvey and published on January 28, 2012 at 11:49 pm. It’s filed under Influences and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: