Mel Bochner: “words…” at Quint Contemporary Art by drew snyder – May/June, 2012

Amazing! 2012 Mel Bochner

“We know,” Mel Bochner once said, “that all abuses of power begin with the abuse of language.” This utterance helps to situate the dozen or so of his pictures on view in “words…,” most dated 2012, rightfully in a critical frame. While the conditions of the display at Quint Contemporary are more or less private and intimate, Bochner’s word-based compositions are themselves rather public, or political, drawing from the thesaurus as a symbol of how in society different words are used by different people to express what is more or less the same idea. The differences embedded in the thesaurus implicate people and institutions into an ideological constellation of power and signification. (Who uses what words to describe or express a thing? What political assumptions are made about a speaker who makes one word choice over another?)

In Bochner’s work, the words reside in the negative. Made up of thickly impastoed, sponge-like stencils that project off their paper background, they clobber the viewer visually and semantically with their scale, their caps lock and pervasive exclamation, their wild and dramatic colors, and their bellicose demands. SILENCE!; GO AWAY!; GROAN, GASP, CHOKE. Works like Obscene deploy sexual diction. Crazy is manic. Amazing! feels sarcastic in its overtly up-beat air. Taken together, at times vernacular and at times clinical, the words and phrases that constitute Bochner’s pictures move, like the thesaurus itself, towards a representation of the entire linguistic matrix of potential signification. However, the futility of any effort to represent the whole of meaning is also coded into the works. That is, stringing together a list of different words that each purports to carry the same meaning calls attention to the impossible to name, connotative space of language. What precisely is the difference between the head honcho, the king of the hill, the master of the universe, and the one who’s gotcha by the balls? Universally understood, each phrase will nevertheless carry different weights of signification from person to person, and from institution to institution. This pushes Bochner’s work to stand ironically as a foil for the thesaurus’s conceptual and hierarchical claims. Moreover, many of Bochner’s opaque painterly stencils sit atop highly fluid, non-linguistic fields of color. These often amorphously shaded pools seem, against language, to speak out for the visual field, for its poetry and its ability to capture shades of meaning that, while invisible in the thesaurus, are nevertheless present in all the spaces between words.