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- As a visual artist, I incorporate text into painting,
but I don't necessarily want you to read that text.
I use language to explore abstraction,
and I use abstraction to get closer
to understanding subtle meanings behind words.
So I'm gonna talk about how language can function in the context of painting.
The manuscript archives of historical societies and libraries
are where I pore through linear feet of boxes of family papers,
business journals, bank ledgers, from the 19th century.
Why do I do this?
Because one day, many years ago,
I came across some handwritten correspondence
that changed the way I look at the world.
Looking at that handwritten letter, I was suddenly awestruck
by how a single penstroke can conjure an era so keenly.
Can the shape of an alphabet convey meaning?
Can we see words without reading them?
The texture itself, of written language, divulges something of the author.
In this example, I see confidence, determination,
a fidgety boredom,
a desire to plant one's self firmly in the world.
Indeed, the shape and ornamentation of letter forms reveals things.
In the 18th century, handwriting style signaled
the writer's gender, social class, and profession,
and oftentimes, even the very decade in which it was penned.
In the 19th century, good penmanship demonstrated
that the writer was disciplined, self-restrained, and virtuous.
For me, this phenomenon of line gets to the heart of visual expression.
Even though handwriting style was rigidly dictated,
it's still a form of drawing.
In this letter from 1881,
the handwriting style of the time called Spencerian Script,
is evident at glance.
The steel-nibbed pen makes a distinctive 19th century mark
with its rhythmic deposits of excess ink punctuating the space.
But I see more than that.
What if we were to look at this in reverse, so that we can't read it?
In the slowly and carefully drawn strokes, there is earnestness, and sincerity,
and a youthful schoolboy's desire to please.
The Victorian Era placed great emphasis on conformity
in all modes of social conduct, and penmanship was no exception.
Business schools flourished where students flocked to learn
how to create the correct stroke.
Now, I need to explain that I'm not necessarily interested in calligraphy.
Calligraphy is a highly-refined, ornate script practiced by masters of the form,
and used for display.
The everyday penmanship of ordinary 19th century Americans
is so much more expressive.
Practice workbooks reveal a diligent striving to conform to the established rules,
but short of achieving perfection, there is a tender awkwardness in the attempt.
This is an 1870's field journal entry by Lieutenant James Bradley.
The very texture of the marks on the page communicates thoughtfulness,
patient observation, dedication to duty,
and a desire to get the facts straight.
This is a detail from a large painting of mine.
In my work, I appropriate text from various 19th century sources.
Of Slaters and Tilers Work refers to roofing laborers
and appears in an 1843 arithmetic workbook in my collection.
The page it's on explains the calculations a roofer would need to know,
but I want to let the text speak through the language of painting.
In my painting language, I've placed the words in a repetitive grid,
like shingles, in an atmosphere suggesting wet weather.
In all my work, I'm exploring what happens to words
in the context of composition, color, space,
and the materiality of paint.
There's more to see on a page of handwritten script than just words.
The spaces between the words hold messages too.
Let's go back to those archives from the Montana Historical Society.
This, to me, is the image of immediacy.
With that ink splot,
you experience the very instant of 18 minutes past five o'clock
on February 24, 1882.
The shift from one era to the next in the history of the west
is indicated by a mere crossing out of a word.
Can text create landscapes? Even landscapes of time?
The lines in this small painting of mine consist entirely
of facsimiles, of signatures
from the generation of our great-great-grandparents.
Layering the signatures horizontally, with some receding,
and some floating to the surface, suggests horizon lines,
and atmospheric perspective.
Smear a signature in a painting, and that can imply rejection,
a change of heart, a search for someone else,
or a person who is disintegrating or forgotten.
A note on my technique,
I digitize the text samples I come across,
and burn the imagery into a photo silk screen.
In this way, I can print across a stretched canvas.
What's important to know about this technique,
is that the bits of text that appear in my paintings,
are exact facsimiles of historical artifacts,
But I'm not necessarily interested in the content of the words
because I'm using language as imagery.
The imagery in this painting, which measures six feet across,
comes from 19th century books that were scribbled into.
There is a language unto itself of off-hand marks,
marginalia, doodles.
These tiny off-the-cuff gestures, express a spirit at odds
with strict rules of Victorian stylistic conformity.
The humanity shines through.
This painting is called Alluvium.
A friend had visited New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina.
She found a 19th century autograph book there
and sent it to me knowing I collect such things.
Alluvium features facsimiles of these signatures,
and in this close-up detail,
you can see that I imagined people surrounded by waist-high water,
their signatures representing them metaphorically.
How did I become so captivated by the shape of language?
My high-school was in Tangier, Morocco.
The look of Arabic signage was, perhaps, my first awakening
to the abstract power of line.
The Cinema Reef was where I first saw Gone with the Wind.
It was dubbed in French.
[quiet laughter]
From Tangier, I entered college in New England.
I had to catch up to American history and culture.
Along the way, I discovered American folk art.
In particular, I became interested
in the 19th century religious sect of the Shakers.
Partly because their last remaining outpost was near my campus.
The Shakers are best known for their exquisite craftsmanship
and simplicity of their furniture and domestic objects.
I decided to make still-life paintings of these artifacts.
So I spent the next couple of years making paintings of Shaker objects
as a meditative exercise.
Each one I painted represents, for me, a culture of discipline and devotion.
Achieving practicality within a sublimely refined aesthetic.
One day, while looking more deeply into Shaker culture,
there was a significant leap in my own artistic development.
This is the letter that changed the way I looked at the world.
I wasn't even reading the words.
While going through some archival Shaker documents,
the look of that 19th century penmanship just leapt off the page.
My fascination with this phenomenon of line
has propelled my work forward ever since.
The Shakers also put pen to paper to achieve something well beyond practicality.
We're looking here at what is known as Shaker Spirit lettering.
These are mystically inspired scripts,
requiring an interpretation different from reading.
Maybe these are conduits from and to the spirit world.
I'm inspired by these alternative alphabets.
I draw lines into my paintings that aren't really text,
but seem to be readable, and take me somewhere.
I consider this mid-size painting of mine to be an aerial landscape.
I've used the text as marks to punctuate the space,
and to create rhythm and depth.
Text becomes texture.
This is a close-up detail.
The imagery comes from Civil War era ledgers
and includes the illiterate autographs of slaves.
I suspend them into translucent layers of paint,
so that they become ghostlike, receding into the past.
Maybe this battle, maybe this landscape, is even a battlefield.
It's called Cavalcade.
I do think of the layers as periods of historical time.
Looking through them is like peering back into another century.
This work is called Old Glories.
Here, I've used wide brushes dipped in solvent to draw,
and uncover secret and forgotten layers.
My gestures are in a kind of conversation with the shape of unprinted signatures.
They reflect that very human impulse to let the mind stray, with pen in hand.
Making paintings is a way for me to amplify the subliminal potential
of handwritten characters.
Compositions themselves are inspired by letter forms.
I wonder, can text have an inner life?
Is it possible to explore the inside of a letter?
What I've concluded from my involvement with words, and paint,
is that on the surface, text can only dance around,
and suggest the content of a painting.
More nuanced, complicated meanings can be felt
within the context of color and space.
The letter R, implies range,
and the snowy Montana landscape of wandering bisons' well-worn paths.
Maybe you can make out the letter forms here.
K, H, Y, F.
Or, in texting language, know how you feel!
My newest paintings do take their compositional cues
from texting acronyms.
These represent language at its most stripped down,
but I'm working to inject a sense of complexity back into them.
So with a visual back-and-forth of obscuring and revealing,
obscuring and revealing,
I'm working to achieve a semantics
of readable text, color, surface,
line, and pure form.
Words may be written in black and white,
but when interpreted through the language of painting,
their meanings are changeable, evolving,
hard to pin down precisely.
Like vibrating colors and shifting translucencies across a canvas,
language is an unstable medium.
another texting acronym:
Read Between The Lines.
That's what I'd like my work to invoke.
To pay attention to the context of what we read,
as we navigate the daily barrage of messages,
and take time to experience a painting,
rather than read it.
Thank you.


【TEDx】The Phenomenon of Line: Language as Imagery | Catherine Courtenaye | TEDxUMontana

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VoiceTube 2015 年 6 月 9 日 に公開
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