Pictures and words have a complicated relationship. On one hand, a picture is the obvious alternative to words for getting across information. It puts out everything in one gulp, not limited to a linear sequence of words on the page. Still, there is a tendency to “read” a picture the way you do a string of words, translating the marks into a sequence of ideas. Unfortunately, the translation approach often misses the point. Sometimes everything rides on a visceral response to the sensory qualities of the image.
Abstract art makes the clearest break with verbal structures, but art that puts words themselves into the image seems to push you back into a literary environment. When van Eyck painted the words “Ave gratia plena” and “ecce ancilla domini” into the Annunciation of Virgin Mary, he dramatized and froze the passage from Luke. Words come up even more frequently in contemporary art, whether from the bits of newspaper headlines in cubist paintings to Mark Lombardi’s drawings linking the people in global networks and conspiracies, or local favorite Wayne White’s catchphrases intruding onto generic pastoral landscapes (seen on the covers of some Lambchop albums). For these artists, words operate as text but also in other ways, such as miniature monuments or the textural detail within intricate patterns.
One of these word-obsessed artists is South Florida’s Amy Broderick, whose large, exuberant drawings, popping with words, are currently on display at Sarratt. According to the organizers at Sarratt, her interest in words comes from an upbringing in an academic household where words dominated, inspiring a curiosity about language that she pursues as a visual artist.
Broderick’s black-and-white drawings are done on irregularly shaped pieces of paper that she staples together to create wall-sized explosions of spirals and circles with background textures of ink wash and charcoal patterns. She prints words along the bands that sweep across the forms and intertwine. Sometimes solitary words sit alone like emphatic statements or fragmentary hints, such as the word “FATHOM” slipped into the curves of a circular form in “Hybrid #1: Fathom.” The same piece includes melancholic phrases—like “I was promised this would be paradise” and “these few feeble pleasures fail me”—which have the tone of 19th century poems. Taken in whole, the compositions resemble the workings of manic machines coming apart at the seams, spilling out emotional baggage of fear, confusion and sadness.
The drawings have a subtle political current that locates the sources of their dread in large part beyond the realm of pure personal experience. There are loose patriotic phrases (“ROCKETS RED GLARE”) and references to explosions and violence (“ELIMINATE” or “CLOBBERED”) that evoke a world of violence and warfare. Other words seem to point to and critique the political machinations driving world events: “Hybrid #3: Octoslossy” pairs the words “SCARITAS” and “VERITAS” and “DIVERSION” and the fragment “PERVER.” These conjunctions raise the specter of truth manipulated to breed fear in service of political purposes, and wars fought to divert attention from other agendas.
The violence in these works condenses in a single element—a circular form with a smaller circle inside. It recurs several places in this show, often with words (“CLOBBERED,” “AH ACTUAL,” “FATHOM,” “LOST,” etc.) printed in the space between the two circles. This looks like nothing so much as the bottom of a bullet, the firing pin sitting in the center and manufacturer’s marks punched into the metal. The pattern punctuates these pieces, and you can practically hear the pops as each goes off within clouds of ink and charcoal.
The scale of these works is important. They spread out over the display walls in Sarratt, from the floor to a height above people’s heads, even poking off the white wall portion in spots. They create the sensation of taking over the space, more of an environmental phenomenon than a personal statement. Artists all over the country are working big like this, filling large spaces with similarly energized detail. As a group they suggest a shared sense that the world is being buffeted by overpowering and complex forces that threaten to bury the individual.
Broderick’s combination of words and shapes stirs up a pungent mix of patriotism, violence, dread and remorse that spreads out chaotically and pervasively. It provides a vivid portrait of what is surely a widely shared experience of the contemporary emotional climate. Although words play a major role in drawing this picture, Broderick doesn’t tell you about these sensations—instead, she shows them to you through line, shape and tone, the basic elements of visual design.