By EKIN ERKAN, May 2023
“Jean-Luc Godard used improvisatory techniques sometimes to observe reality, sometimes to impose his own vision, and often to interrelate the two so as to create a strangely abstract effect."
So reads Brian Appel’s painting, Untitled (Jean-Luc), (2022; oil stick and spray paint on canvas; 36 x 24 in). It is perhaps uncommon to quote a filmmaker when speaking of or working on the medium of the canvas, given the difference in medium-specificity of the two. After all, the former is an art of movement and time, prodded along via montage, and the latter is steeped in a process guided by gesture and material particularity. Both involve movement, but in distinctly different directions—the filmmaker slows time down into a crystalline shape while the painter fights its shadow. But it is this engagement with time and its concentrated passage that also bridges painting and cinema—or, at the very least, when abstraction is concerned. For, under the auspices of so-called “expression theories”, the abstractionist projects their phenomenology onto the canvas as time passes—their drabs and whips of the paintbrush collecting movements coated in acrylic and quoting them against a tabula rasa that they posit in the shape of a dance of twisting images. And it is this kind of abstraction that undergirds Appel’s recent word-based quotational paintings, an amalgam of prismatic plucks and prods (including cherry crimson, cyan blue, shimmering hoary white-cum-silvers adrift) that buoy the letters afloat.
Appel’s quotational paintings source from great avant-garde artists, filmmakers, poets, and musicians. These paintings, half action-painting and half history-writing, are difficult to anchor in any comparative mode and before further speaking of the paintings head-one, we must contextualize them historically. Word-based art, or what one might term the “verbal visual”, can take myriad directions and so it has before it arrived before Appel’s brush.
As practiced in the 1950s and 60s by pioneers like Chryssa and Robert Indiana, pictography served as the critical fulcrum behind the verbal visual. Subsequent 20th century artists like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince thereafter took up the mantle, often prodding the practice into conceptual directions related to “rephotography” and toying with Danto’s well-known query regarding the status of art objects perceptually indistinguishable from their real-world counterparts. For instance, in Prince’s “joke paintings” we are made aware of the tenuous distinction between a written joke and a painting with the words and letters of the joke. But for us to arrive even here, let alone before Appel, deserves further elaboration.
Trekking back through the annals the emergence of the “verbal visual”, we see a notable development in tandem with literacy and its machinations; the verbal visual can invariably be traced (like all contemporary art) to the birth of modernism and its coeval depiction of common subjects, typified by Dutch paintings of the working class (e.g., Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Peasant Wedding, 1567) and impressionism’s anti-classist mentality (e.g., Edgar Degas' The Laundry Workers (The Ironing), ca. 1874-76). Of course, there is no one modernism but modernisms—for while, as far as the modernist rapprochement of subjectivity and historical situatedness may transpire with Manet’s 1865 Olympia, the modernism of the intellectual subject who frees herself from mytho-poetic trappings comes to bear with widespread literacy. This kind of literary modernism opened the door for “the common” to be depicted in high art settings, paving the way for future movements like Dadaism and Pop Art. And thus, it is most fitting that Appel directs us by way of a literary painting practice.
This Enlightenment cultivation is deeply intertwined with that of the verbal visual. For instance, Kurt Schwitters’ Merz series (1923), constructed out of letterpress and lithograph portfolios, uses found words in collage form, acting as a clear milestone for the verbal visual of the mid-to-late 20th century while dealing, head-on, with the printing press and its reticulated effects. But even at this point, we might look further backwards—back towards the emergence of written language tout court.
The genealogy of the English alphabet begins with Egyptian hieroglyphics and continues through the Phoenician, Greek, and Roman alphabets, which would later evolve to become the Romantic languages and English. In Egyptian hieroglyphics in particular, we see a kind of visual likeness between what the relationship between signifier and signified. Chryssa, with her “V”-shaped doves (arguably steeped in sexual/genital slippage) are heir to this tradition. Appel’s works, on the other hand, are closer to the Prince-riven genealogical thread. They are undoubtedly part of the long march of language but ultimately settle in romantic storytelling and quotation. The letters and words do not stand in for any image by themselves but for lives lived—lives of artists that have impacted Appel’s art practice and formed his comprehensive and rich quotational-cum-bibliographic arsenal.
And like Prince’s “joke paintings”, there is something immediately accessible in Appel’s series (notably, this is not something we can say for much of Prince’s work, but the “joke paintings” are an exception). Since the “verbal visual” is rooted in an aesthetic preoccupation with the common—e.g., common modes of communication and literacy being made common— literacy and readership had to become widespread for it to ever foot. The accessibility galvanizes Appel’s paintings is distinct from that of the Social Realists. It is not brooked in figurative verisimilitude or the plight of the working class, but is spurred by a similar spirit that avoids alienation. Granted, one might worry that the impact of these works may be somewhat lost on viewers unfamiliar with the artists whom he quotes, but even this is not entirely the case—after all, the quotes he has chosen are self-standing and will resound with meaning even for those unfamiliar with Godard’s filmography.
There is another key motif to address in the verbal visual and the aestheticization of the printed word, which is advertising. Consequently, it is no wonder that mass advertising became a key influence on the Dadaists and many of the twentieth century artists utilizing semiology. Aesthetic advertising comes after widespread literacy—after all, if it were not for the processual simplification of the writing system and, later, widespread literacy vis-à-vis the Guttenberg Press, mass advertising would have neither been possible nor necessary. As the United States separated from England in 1776, the English alphabet was retained but, as American aesthetics and visual culture evolved in the consequent two centuries, the writing system was artistically adapted to proffer a modern and uniquely American advertising culture, with figures like Ed Bernays taking this to novel (propagandistic) heights in the 20th century. Advertising would also inspire artist like Chryssa, Holzer, Indiana, Kruger, and Prince, both in the formal layout of their works and in how these artists engaged the systems that they simultaneously critiqued. Again, we see the return of the common—as inaugurated by Duchamp and Schwitters’ post-Dada ready-mades and collages, “the common” became high art and the verbal visual a key component of it. Subsequent artists like Chryssa and Robert Indiana would notice indexical connections in typography that their predecessors did not. One such example is utilizing characters as pictographs: for instance, Indiana’s Cardinal Three (1966) imagines the numeral “3” as a figure, poised in bird-eye view, set in an embrace. Similarly, Chryssa’s Neon Birds (1969) reimagine the “M” or “W” as a fowl figure.
Simply put, the pictograph, inaugurated by Egyptian hieroglyphics, is a pictorial symbol for a word or phrase. The pictograph as a historical practice is the result of thousands of years of simplification, resulting in pictorial symbols being abstracted beyond the recognition of their original form. Chryssa inverts the practice of pictography, appropriating the spirit of this tradition by using letters indexically, such that that the letters become pictorial symbols themselves. For example, in Chryssa’s 1960s Clytemnestra series, she utilizes the letter “S” to depict Clytemnestra (from the story of Troy) during her murder as a pair of lips screaming in agony. While, contra the English alphabet, Hindu-Arabic numerals did not derive from pictographs, Robert Indiana treats them as such. This is evident in Indiana’s One (1962), where Indiana utilizes the “1” to depict a self-portrait of a lonely, standing single figure.
With Appel, however, there are no such stand-ins. His art practice is of this lineage, but also distinct. The common is more so a part of how we approach and perform with Appel’s canvases: we do not just view them but we read them; we read them, however, as we would a pithy advertisement. This is something that we could quite readily characterize as a cognitive, conceptual performance but Appel manages to create conceptual artworks without rarefying or disaffecting. This is, in my opinion, commendable.
As knowledge is adapted and it passes from generation to generation, the tradition of the verbal visual is likewise adapted, with this artistic tradition here brought into a mooring with literature. These are not simultaneously textual works, works that we read like we would the lines of a novel. In using the sentences of other artists and writers, Appel is in equal parts a writer as painter, stylistically poising these quotes into the shape of his kaleidoscopic artistry. One is hard pressed whether to enter them as painterly Abstract Expressionist process paintings or, alternatively, vis-à-vis the dance of letters, words, and compositional sentences—i.e., sententially. But one also is not forced into making such a decision: instead, they approach, are affected, and can walk away with the after-image and after-thought of the quote ready-at-mind. It is not often that I encounter a living artist whose works invite me to think about them after my initial encounter. WM
Ekin Erkan is a writer, researcher, and instructor in New York City.view all articles from this author