Jack Pierson at Cheim & Read
October 8 to November 14
547 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 242 7727
Jack Pierson is a photographer and conceptual artist best known for his use of old signs to spell evocative words and phrases. As the title of his current show, “Abstracts,” at Cheim & Read indicates, Pierson’s latest work quite literally refuses to be read. The pieces of old signs and vintage lettering no longer combine to form words, but are appropriated and assembled into ostensibly abstract compositions. Whereas in Pierson’s previous works the re-appropriated letters were used to spell different words, but still kept their linguistic function, here they are stripped of their former purpose, not only as commercial signage, but as signs, period. The letters no longer form words, but instead become abstract shapes used to speak the visual language of formal composition.
The sense of nostalgia, tattered glamour, and loss that pervades Pierson’s work is heightened by this shift from word to image. The signs are all the more emphatically and poignantly no longer what they once were, having once proudly declared the names of businesses on some formerly prosperous commercial strip. Their transformation into line, form, and shape causes us to appreciate their latent visual qualities, but we are unable to forget that they once spoke. We wonder what they used to say when they were part of something bigger—a word, a world. Pierson’s work suggests that all we have left are tattered fragments of a formerly coherent whole.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to understand Pierson’s work simply to be about loss and the absence of signification, just as it is misleading to see these pieces simply as abstractions. First, despite the use of broken and peeling signage, the compositions are playful, the colors bright and joyful. Indeed, in some cases they begin to resemble high-end design more than high art. For example, in the piece titled Her ancient solitary reign, a flock of multicolored O’s floats across a wall in an arrangement that is attractive but also unchallenging. Conversely, Abstract #15 disburdens the letters of their alphabetic function only to reaffirm it again in a giant alphabetic calligram: a collection of small blue o’s is reconfigured to form one giant O. Here we have less a refusal of language than a whimsical form of tautology.
Indeed, one of the intriguing aspects of Pierson’s compositions is that they often seem to suggest language or writing even though they do not spell anything. Sometimes this is simply a shift from one kind of language into another, from the verbal to the visual. In Abstract #10, the word from which the free-standing sculpture is formed is no longer recognizable, but the shape evokes a reclining figure. Or the shift is from one alphabet system to another: the pieces of Purest ray serene are arranged along a horizontal axis in a way that suggests Arabic script. Abstract #11 looks like an exclamation point. One of the lessons of Pierson’s show seems to be that a total refusal of language is an elusive enterprise: even when words themselves fail, these compositions speak in other ways.