Painting with Words

Emerging artist Alexandra Grant crafts elaborate webs of words in paint and wire to examine the ways we look at language.


A spotlight illuminates a six-foot-high ball of wire, drawing visitors down the corridor into a dimly lit antechamber of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, at Grand Avenue. The wire sphere reflects light intermittently, flashing like a beacon as light returns from deep within the slowly spinning orb. Several weights of fine gauge wire loop and spiral to form the myriad of letters and words that complete the structure. This constellation of light and language is nimbus II (after Michael Joyce’s poem “nimbus,” 2003), the introductory piece in Alexandra Grant’s solo show, part of the prestigious MOCA Focus series that highlights the work of emerging artists in Southern California. Grant says of nimbus II, “It’s just this mundane thing, made out of a dumb material, but it becomes this wonderful shimmering thing. That’s what language can do. When you look at a word it’s a simple ‘the,’ but when it’s in a string of words, it becomes a connector between all these concepts. Language becomes this sparkling thing.”

Language itself is the connector that runs through all of Grant’s work, from her wire sculptures to her large-scale drawings and paintings, providing both the material and inspiration. And yet while much of Grant’s work may be motivated by the sparkle of language, she also tries to tarnish it, to challenge it to do its work even under extreme conditions, to see what language can do when words are pared down to pictures, or quite literally, as mere shadows of themselves.

of their collaborative work, Grant gleans her words from Joyce’s printed text, transcribing his words into her paintings, though the words are made strange by her backwards, left-handed writing. In babel the words are stacked haphazardly, packed together like a panorama of brightly lit windows and advertisements in a city at night. Even in this two-dimensional plane, the words seem to cast shadows, through a chasm of black at the horizon of the cityscape. While the words in the foreground shout like neon signs, their counterparts in the dark background are mostly represented by outlines drawn in gray.

Grant had long sought a literary collaborator. But most writers were dismayed at her suggestion of “turning their work into something else” be legible when Grant was through with it. Then Grant happened upon “Reach,” a piece published online by the pioneering hypertext author Michael Joyce. Unaware of his celebrity in literary circles, Grant sent Joyce a simple e-mail describing her work and proposing a joint project. Quickly, she received an enthusiastic reply.

Joyce, who is a professor of English and Media Studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has published in many formats, from Internet and CD-ROM-based hypertext fiction to a guide on the teaching of hypertext. (His newest work, a novel titled Was is currently available in paperback.) However, most of Joyce’s writings that form the basis for Grant’s paintings take the relatively traditional form of prose poems or short texts, composed specifically in response to his conversations with Grant. One such paragraph lays wrinkled on the floor at the foot of a new painting in Grant’s studio. Her painted circles and underlines annotate Joyce’s printed text, relating the words to the painting hanging above it like the legend of a complicated topographic map.

Grant’s painting conspirar (after Michael Joyce’s “Conspire,” 2004) visualizes this process of verbal and visual translation, as applied to Joyce’s text. Referring to the poststructuralist scholar Hélène Cixous’ writing on the implications of a ‘mother tongue,’ Grant describes that through translation she was able to “own [Joyce’s] text in a completely different way, in a physical way. By translating it or mistranslating it, I was creating more opportunities. Since I’m not a translator, I came up with three different sentences, and then those became one. The piece has a density that comes from presenting all the options.” Like the web of links, or lexias, that comprise Joyce’s works of hypertext fiction, this approach represents a finite number of end points that are accessible by an exponentially greater selection of reader-determined paths. Spreading out her words in this manner, Grant’s paintings make even Joyce’s linear texts into hypertextual webs. Just as Joyce’s hypertext writings present no single path by which to enter the narrative, Grant invites the viewer to trace her own cognitive route through her paintings.

Of her work with Joyce, Grant says, “I’m always resisting a reading of the text; I’m always transforming it into something else, adding to it.” She even admits that in some pieces there are “parts that I absolutely hate, and I use that emotional response in the painting itself. I’ll obliterate the text or write it out and paint it over. I make his words mine in a very specific way.” Grants points to a reproduction of let’s (after Michael Joyce’s “Ladders,” 2004) in the MOCA Focus catalogue. “In this one, collaboration comes in in a different way,” she explains. “It starts out in the middle with these lines emerging in a heliocentric way. But ‘let’s’ is a very interesting thing to say to another person. ‘Let’s work together’-it’s not really asking permission; it’s kind of telling. And so I think that this piece was Michael’s sly nod to what it is to work together.”

Grant’s compositions are no less varied or dynamic. In let’s, for instance, word bubbles in cyan and shades of gray blossom out of a white space in the lower corner, until they erupt into sparks of orange and gold. Across the painting, clusters of words emerge, unified by the hue of their backgrounds. Areas of density and relative emptiness work like shadows and highlights, which in turn become the basic elements from which she builds her composition. While some of Grant’s works reveal more representational compositional strategies, such as the landscape in babel, most reflect her interest in the progression of forms and the challenge of employing colors to create a balance of harmony and dissonance.

After spending her childhood divided between Mexico, France, and the United States, Grant received her BA from Swarth-more College in Pennsylvania in 1995 and her MFA from San Francisco’s California College of Arts and Crafts in 2000. Grant’s intimate knowledge of the differences that exist between languages led her to question the meaning and formation of language, and she began to seek answers in literary theory. In particular, she became interested in the work of Hélène Cixous, who was also raised in a multilingual family. While many of critical theory on their work, few have attained such a compelling visual response to the complexities of language and the written word as has Grant.

The artist recalls listening in on a school group as they toured her installation at MOCA. “One of the students said, ‘I think the artist is trying to show us the difference between seeing and perceiving.’” Grant continues, “I think he’s right. The paintings emphasize the difference between the work of the eye and the work of the mind. I think that’s also what Cixous is trying to do, trying to separate the sense of reading from the sense of perception.”

Later Grant passes me a small mirror, and I reluctantly take it. This moment, like Snow White’s mirror, could forcibly dispel the magic of Grant’s elaborate inside-out paintings. I face away from the painting and peek into the mirror over my shoulder. Sure enough, there is the story in Grant’s painting; the pictures disappear and become words, the words trip over each other’s heels in their effort to become phrases, then whole sentences. Suddenly I’m reading, not looking. Anxiously, I hand back the mirror, and the painting returns.

Grant explains, “I think your satisfaction or dissatisfaction as the viewer comes from whether or not you can let go and start looking at the painting as an image of a system or whether you continue to see it as language.” The ease with which this negotiation takes place varies from one work to the next.

Some, like she taking her space (after Michael Joyce’s “he taking the space of”), are extremely dense, the right-to-left words so heavily worked in paint and pencil that they are visible only up close. Others are deliberate, heavily outlined like cartoon word bubbles, as legible as a newspaper headline.

In her artistic examination of the “problem of word as image,” Grant notes the importance of Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger and John Baldessari, but points to a substantial difference between their work and hers: fonts. She explains, “I was really interested in undoing the power of the font. I needed to figure out a way for the actual drawing of the word to become the picture, a conflation of the sign and the signifier. So part of my left-handed writing thing is to have no style, though some people have compared it to outsider-ness or childishness. But really, for me I just wanted to find something that was legible, where it looked like handwriting, but where there was no sort of information about the artist, you can’t tell if it’s a woman or a man or how old he or she is. This is un-style of handwriting that I was searching for.”

Though Grant may have been seeking an un-style, much about her work and her manner of working is unique. After moving to Los Angeles from New York in 2001, Grant declined offers of gallery representation for fear of stopping her artistic development short of reaching what she calls her “vernacular” style. (Lately, she has accepted representation by Honor Fraser, whose gallery will be moving to La Cienega in the fall.)

As MOCA curator Alma Ruiz recalls, “Nothing I had seen before prepared me for the new work she began to make once she could spend more time in the studio… I was really taken by its scale, its compositional complexity, its depiction of language, and its ambitiousness.” Grant’s attraction to language, from its fantastic flaws to its magic tricks, leads her to take language apart, to try to uncover the source of its power. And yet, the fascination that guides her remains startlingly evident: to Grant, and those who take the time to engage her complex works, language is a “wonderful, shimmering thing.”

-Kim Beil