Visual Word/ks, a joint exhibition by Barbara Penrose and Nameer Davis, was most impressive for me in terms of Davis' main installation- a rather baffling three-dimensional textual construction based upon an exchange between James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Partially reminiscent of the metallic bricolage of the American sculptor David Smith, and partially reminiscent of such lettriste sculpture as the early work of the French artist Paul Gette, Davis' installation could also be mistaken for a rather disorderly variation upon some monosyllabic graphic theme by Edward Ruscha. But whereas Ruscha tends to draw or paint the individual noun or imperative, Davis' installation takes the unusual step of orchestrating an anecdotal exchange between the two masters of early and late modernism:
James Joyce: "How could the idealist Hume write a history?"
Samuel Beckett: "A history of representations."
Put very simply, Davis presents a three-dimensional, typographical-and virtually calligraphical- orchestration of this question and answer, projecting its signs into space, somewhat as Robert Wilson's adaptations of past dramatic classics project and re-orchestrate sections from lbsen 's, Shakespeare's and other precursors ' texts across a variety of media.
What one confronts in Wilson's work is dramatically dislocated word and gesture, as several representatives of a single character dismantle and reassemble segments of utterance and action at different speeds. Abandoning explicit continuity, Wilson's adaptations of past works provoke intensified awareness of the molecules of habitual communication, as opposed to the banality of its superficially meaningful momentum. Watching Wilson 's productions, one is constantly exposed to marginalised creative energies, such as the shock of slowly disintegrating film-frames, when the reel stops turning, and the cinematic 'real' starts burning.
Davis' work, I think, has something of the same effect. Preventing the satisfied over-glance, his typographical modules-each one a textual totem in its own right-command careful consideration as amalgams of both encoded semantic clue and inscribed geometric gesture. Gradually, very gradually, clusters of three-dimensional angles become manifest as letters, and then as specific words, as the reader decodes Davis ' three-dimensional alphabetic icons, and- if sufficiently patient and perceptive-becomes aware of an increasingly evident verbal exchange with in this apparent maze of sculptural narrative fall out.
Surprisingly, perhaps Davis' work convincingly has its cake and eats it. Both a semiabstract sculpture and a semi-concrete text, this seemingly inchoate geometric and linguistic rebus slowly floats into focus as its architectural and anecdotal subtexts make increasingly concurrent and contagious sense.
But does Davis' installation really work? And what would it mean for such a composition to really work? If to 'really work' implies eventual legibility, then this installation was not entirely successful from my point of view.
Too tired , too impatient, too blinkered perhaps, I couldn’t readily decipher its narrative without considerable assistance.
But as Davis assured me, numerous visitors at the exhibition's opening successfully followed his installation 's textual trail from start to finish. And once Davis' comments subtitles as it were-had pointed me in the right direction, I found myself enthralled by his installation- if not so much by its success, as by the problems and challenges invoked by its aspirations and implications. "What a curious work! ", I find myself rethinking. "What an inventive if slightly unfathomable assemblage of gestural, sculptural letters-and grouplets of letters, of words, sentences and-all in all-of enigmatically balanced interchange!" Like Wilson, Davis mixes media, fragments communicative clarity, and reveals communicative complexity as one looks across rather than along individual media. Like Burroughs, Davis explores illuminating cut-ups between media, generating new energies at their interstices.
Like Cage, Davis sculpts language, revealing doubled or trebled narratives, as the eye explores dense peripheral visions-or more accurately, as the eye is more or less compelled to absorb dense peripheral detail, before it extricates itself from such macrocosmic fields in order to trace embedded microcosmic inscriptions-semantic needles, as it were, within sculptural haystacks.
The tension between these partially explicit forces is what gives this installation its hauntingimpact and individuality. Resisting slick verbal economy and obvious legibility, Davis creates a highly inventive, partially gestural, partially hard-edge, verbal-visual rhetoric charged with idiosyncratic integrity. Looking distractingly like alphabetical chess-pieces upon the Palace Gallery's checkered lino floor, Davis' subtle construction did not really seem installed to best advantage. Nevertheless, the fact that it survived this rough and ready location, and generated such startling energies, suggests that Davis has successfully discovered a highly personal sculptural iconography, rich with subsequent potential.