Any designer can tell you the importance of text. Its placement, font, color, feeling, style and meaning all affect how we understand the words themselves. Calligraffiti:1984-2013 gives us a global taste of the power of text in art over the past 30 years.
Originally curated in 1984 by LA Museum of Contemporary Art Director Jeffrey Deitch, the updated exhibition features work from more than 50 artists from around the world, who render text as graffiti, calligraphy and contemporary art.
Artists like Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly make text that doesn’t really look like text — highlighting text as art in and of itself, not necessarily something that bears literal meaning. Jean-Michael Basquiat and Keith Haring use language to augment their works.
In Basquiat’s “Portrait of Keith Haring in Mudd Club Guest Book,” he chickenscratches “Keith” next to a sketch of his friend and fellow artist, identifying a portrait that could be anyone with glasses. Haring’s text often appears like graffiti and is means to illustrate just that.
While the older pieces are most recognizable, the exhibition’s more recent works are its most loaded. Factoring heavily from North Africa and the Middle East, many of the pieces respond and react to political instability and revolution in that part of the world. Arabic script both speaks out in protest and functions as a beautiful design element.
Tunisian street artist El Seed forms Arabic into artful structures with poetic names like “In the Desert of Language, Calligraphy Is the Shade Where I Rest.” Similarly, Iranian artist Reza Mafi uses text in his untitled pieces to create expressive structures—divorced from meaning for those who don’t understand the script.
Leila Pazooki calligraphies “This Is Not Green” in illuminated neon tubes as a nod to Iran’s Green Movement. Iraqi-born artist Ayad Alkadhi uses words as physical elements of his pieces, like the arms of outstretched hands in “Hear My Words” or a knife held in “If Words Could Kill III.”
These pieces, disparate as they are across place and time, all use text for various reasons and ends. They show that words carry more than literal meaning. Designers, take note.
Photography by Rani Molla.
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and is the editorial producer at GigaOM. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.