Text as Material: Laurel Woodcock gives form to linguistic contradictions

Laurel Woodcock: on a clear day (2010): Aluminum, car paint on four panels. All images courtesy the artist and MKG127, Toronto.Laurel Woodcock: on a clear day (2010): Aluminum, car paint on four panels. All images courtesy the artist and MKG127, Toronto.

By Bill Clarke

Laurel Woodcock: untitled (neon quotation), 2005: Blue neon quotation sculpture (each unit 6.5 × 6.5", spaced 48" apart).Laurel Woodcock: untitled (neon quotation), 2005: Blue neon quotation sculpture (each unit 6.5 × 6.5", spaced 48" apart).Toronto-based Laurel Woodcock is as interested in cinema as language, the two weaving together in a diverse practice, which also embraces sculpture and public interventions, over the past ten years. When it comes to language specifically, however, she is most interested in its malleability: how similar groupings of words can mean completely different things depending on context, or how words can fail or mislead us. Earlier this month, a monograph of Woodcock’s work was released following a survey exhibition at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery in 2011. Magenta editor Bill Clarke met with Woodcock at her Parkdale home/studio to discuss her love of contradictions and discovering new materials.

Bill Clarke (BC): Your early work seems to consist mainly of video, so what prompted your move towards text-based work?

Laurel Woodcock (LW): I think I’ve always worked with language or syntax, actually. I’d always been interested in language, but when I was introduced to Conceptual art as an undergrad I realized formal interests and language could work in tandem. In grad school, I made the first version of the empty quotation marks – the photograph of the ‘air quote’ hand gesture – that we use when language is empty or our words don’t seem adequate.

BC: You have revisited the quotation mark several times since then.

LW: Yes, I made the first sculptural version, “interval”, at the same time as the photographic version. They are enlarged renditions in aluminum of lead type that were once used to set type for printing, an approach that was dying out rapidly by that point. So, it was partly an homage to that. The first neon versions were made in 2005 when I started incorporating materials used in commercial signage into my work. The quote marks have usually been hung at the entrances of galleries with plenty of space between them. Visually, they are, in effect, quoting an empty space. I produced the pink and orange highlighter colour powder-coated aluminum editions in 2005 and 2010.

BC: In documentation of this work, the quotations often hang behind the desk where the gallery staff sits. Are you trying to make the staff  part of the work? 

Laurel Woodcock: two love songs (2008): White neon, alternating circuit device, 5 × 56 inches.Laurel Woodcock: two love songs (2008): White neon, alternating circuit device, 5 × 56 inches.LW: If the architecture lends itself to that, it’s a way to acknowledge that the gallery staff are an integral component of the exhibition process. The curator Joseph del Pesco wanted them hung this way for a show titled On Being an Exhibition for Artists Space in New York. The concept for the show was an homage to Michael Asher. His practice is often referred to as 'situational aesthetics', which incorporates existing features of the gallery or museum, its history, its architecture, as well as other important aspects that help it function to exhibit work, such as staff. I also produced a larger 18 x 18 inch neon version that could only be seen from the street – the gallery is on the third floor – from two windows so that the gallery space was in quotation marks.

BC: What are the sources of your words when you do use text?

LW: I often use really common language; familiar phrases like song titles or lyrics, or book titles, or I cull from seemingly banal direction notes or dialogue from film scripts for the ongoing walkthrough series. I like using language that is ‘everyday’. We think that the everyday is simple, but it can become quite complicated, especially through the use of language. I like examining complications using banal means such as pop songs. So many pop songs are about falling in or out of love. In the neon piece “two love songs” (2008), a fragment of text shared by the lyrics of two love songs – Don’t Tell Me and Tell Me Everything – their shared grammar – Tell Me – stays lit while the words at either end alternate on-and-off. The piece becomes a contradiction; the songs have completely different sentiments.

I also like examining how we respond to ‘loaded’ words. In my first show at MKG127, one of the first pieces that came together was AEEFLLSVY (2011). I purchased books that had the word ‘nothingness’ in the title. If the flyleaves were blank, I tore them out, and then ended up stacking them according to size. The work plays with our assumptions about the meaning of the word ‘nothingness’. Most of the books weren’t about existentialism, like you’d expect. There was a book about fly fishing, another about jazz, even one about video art. The unpronounceable non-word title of the work is the word 'flyleaves' arranged alphabetically, similar to how the pages were organized by size.

Laurel Woodcock: AEEFLLSVY (2011): 11 flyleaves, stacked and framed.Laurel Woodcock: AEEFLLSVY (2011): 11 flyleaves, stacked and framed.BC: What comes first for you – the text or the form?

LW: It depends on the piece. Sometimes, it happens in tandem, but often the material or format comes first. For the work “wish you were here” (2003), I knew first that I wanted to do something with one of those small airplanes that you see flying over the city with a banner attached, advertising something. But, I wanted to use it for something other than advertising. I wanted to set up a contradictory situation, and the plane trailing a banner reading “wish you were here” complicates this sentiment. It’s up in the air, so you can’t really be there. The phrase is somewhat of a banal cliché and the vagueness of its use in this context performs a dismantling of communication.

BC: I get the sense that your work is very material-driven.

LW:  I think about materials quite a bit. A lot of my work is fabricated, and one of the places I use is a local sign company. They know me, and they’ll let me wander around and look at what is available. I’ll often see things there and think, “Oh, what’s that? I want to make something using that.” That’s partly how the large checkmark sculpture, “done” (2008) came about. I saw samples of really thick Plexiglas and wanted to do something with that material. For the large version of “on a clear day” (2010) that was in my Toronto Now exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), I had to research different grades of aluminum before finding one that was heavy enough not to bend in the middle when leaning against the wall.

BC: I think the “on a clear day” piece is one of the most elegant objects you’ve made. Can you tell us more about it?

Laurel Woodcock: walkthrough (2007 - ongoing): Vinyl lettering in situ, dimensions variable.Laurel Woodcock: walkthrough (2007 - ongoing): Vinyl lettering in situ, dimensions variable.LW: This piece started with the text, the familiar phrase “on a clear day”, which most people will recognize as part of the title of the popular musical On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, which was also turned into a film by Vincente Minnelli in 1970. It is often abbreviated to On A Clear Day, which is the title of a more-recent British drama directed by Gaby Dellal in which the main character has to cope with losing his job. So, very different films in terms of subject matter and tone. That said, I don’t think knowledge of these references are integral to experiencing the work. It is part of the pleasure I derive from researching and producing to stumble across such things. Each of the words is on its own 96-inch high panel. The phrase is formed from negative space and the typography is cropped so each of the letters is partially missing. So, the title suggests clarity, but the words aren’t immediately legible, which is another contradiction. This is also the first time I used a car painter rather than a powder coating process to obtain that sky blue. I joked with my painter friends that I had done a landscape painting.

I was also thinking about people passing by the AGO every day on the way to work, who would see the piece through the gallery windows several times and, hopefully, would need a couple of attempts to figure out what it says. Plus, the words at the top also read as abstract clouds as they are delineated by the white wall.

BC: Do you look at text as a material, as well?

LW: Yes, I think of text and language as a material; a raw material that I can manipulate and use sculpturally, especially in a public context. In the series “walkthrough”, which started as a project with the Images Film Festival, phrases in the Courier font and formatting traditionally used for film scripts was made into vinyl lettering and adhered to walls along hallways, doors, even elevators. The phrases were based on directions to actors or sound cues – “laughing, while drinking a bottle of water” or “cell phone ringing”. The short form “(CONT’D)”, which is printed at the bottom pages of a script if the scene is continued on the following page, was adhered to the bases of doors that people went in and out of. In effect, it was as if people moving through the space were ‘performing’ a script.

Laurel Woodcock: stickies (2011): Steel, yellow car paint, screws, magnets in three sizes.Laurel Woodcock: stickies (2011): Steel, yellow car paint, screws, magnets; in three sizes.BC: Does the installation of a work affect meaning?

LW: Yes, the way I hang pieces plays a part in how people will relate to the work. Sometimes, the mechanisms that make the piece function become part of the work; for example, the white electrical cords in the neon piece “cloud” (2011) purposefully hang down the wall and are arranged on the floor like a puddle, and the height at which it is hung is integral – about seven feet at the bottom so it is above the viewer's head. Or, with the steel replicas of the sticky notes (2011), they are affixed to the gallery walls in seemingly arbitrary clusters, rarely at eye level, so they look as if they could have been left behind by mistake after the exhibition was installed.

BC: Such gestures hint at a playfulness in your work. Do you ever think your work is funny?

LW: The potential for misunderstanding is inherent in language, so it makes sense that it often serves as the basis for a lot of comedy. This idea of misunderstanding has played a role in some works, like the “stickies”, or there is visual humour in the placement of texts in the “walkthrough” installations. I think humour is as complicated as language.

Laurel Woodcock's recently published self-titled monograph is available through her gallery, MKG127 in Toronto, and other bookstores.