"WORDS" at Simon Lee Gallery, London

An untimely misstep by the otherwise impressive gallery

Josephine Pryde, The Semen of an Anonymous Stallion Exposed in Artificial Light (80mm, Royal Blue Bigger Splash), 2017, C-print, unique photogram, 50 x 80 cm (19 3/4 x 31 1/2 in.), Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.

To be a writer is necessarily to believe in the value of words. And for whatever trite sentiment this notion seems to peddle in, it’s one that’s undergirded by simple fact – to pursue writing seriously, one has to find value in the practice, and by extension, the practice’s structural unit. But even writers, those who approach language with a veneration unparalleled, must reconcile themselves with the asymptotic relationship language bears to reality, and the human experience that reality begets. For all the words in all of the languages, there is a limit to the word’s efficacy, and there will always remain much that we cannot adequately express – feelings next to which their verbal counterparts pale. This is true of love, for one, and also of pain. This is why we have the notion of the ineffable – ironically, a word to describe having none.

The vast majority of the time, this is a fact that we can blithely forget; I have the words to order my coffee in the morning, to do my work (*ahem*), and to tell my friends and family I love them, comfortably encompassing massive swathes of the human experience. But the last number of months cannot accurately be described under any terms of normalcy, and as a result I often find myself bumping up against – or rather, crashing headfirst into – this verbal barrier.

For all of my time working with the English language, I found that I lacked the words to accurately describe both the loneliness of isolation, and the pathologization of community and intimacy; the centuries worth of pain resting upon the shoulders of my BIPOC friends, and the harrowing reckoning with the damage I and my communities have been complicit in. These have been times to collectively abandon language as feeling’s conduit, and resort to action: this is why we commit to public safety measures, and cherish connections in whatever way we can enjoy them, and likewise, bring our bodies to the streets to march for justice, believing our physical presence will communicate what our voices cannot.

With this in mind, there’s little explaining to do for why I found Simon Lee Gallery’s new group exhibition, Words – realized first online, but again later with an accompanying, limited, in-person hang until July 31 – so terribly out of touch. Still, one would hope that the gallery would have the sense to at least pay lip service to the fraught relationship between language and the present in order to mask their curatorial cowardice, but even this is evidently asking too much. Couching the exhibition in an a-political “[exploration of] the function of language and the role of text in art making [and]...the interrelation of form and meaning” in the exhibition’s press release, the political value of language in art is glossed over. Keen to swiftly move along, such charged speech is equated to “ribald asides,” and “illegible scrawls and scribbles,” the latter a rather conspicuous reference to the singular Cy Twombly piece, Seguso (1976), hanging in the show.

What makes this all the more inexcusable is that when confronted with work that is overtly political – when it would have simply been easier to pay heed to the relationship between artistic production and politics – curation works to obfuscate these elements of contention, deflating potential tension that could easily have been drawn out had only half a mind been paid to social message.

It verges on criminal to show work by Richard Prince, whose practice has long since drawn the ire of those cynical towards the contemporary art world, and Merlin Carpenter’s piece Stop Art (2009), described as “successfully complicating the relationship between consumer and object,” without putting them into dialogue. Instead, Carpenter’s Stop Art hangs out of sight from Prince’s painting, cloistered away as if a barely audible murmur, whispered under the gallery’s collective breath.

Merlin Carpenter The Opening: Intrinsic Value: 5, 2009 Oil on linen213.4 x 152.4 cm (84 x 60 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery

Likewise, there remains much to made of the interplay between works like Lawrence Weiner’s a black mark upon the earth (1984), Josephine Pryde’s The Semen of an Anonymous Stallion Exposed in Artificial Light (80mm Royal Blue Bigger Splash) (2017), reading ‘GUILTY’ in horse ejaculate, and Michael Simpson’s Dead Cross (2020). It is hardly an interpretive leap to consider the connotations of a “black mark” alongside the history of the criminalization of black male sexuality, and in turn, connotations of “death by public consensus” conveyed in crucifix imagery. Yet, the gallerists instead opted for chromatic consonance, placing Heimo Zobernig’s royal blue Untitled (2020) between Pryde and Simpsons work, nullifying what could have proven a charged selection.

Josephine Pryde The Semen of an Anonymous Stallion Exposed in Artificial Light (80mm, Royal Blue Bigger Splash), 2017 C-print, unique photogram 50 x 80 cm (19 3/4 x 31 1/2 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.

There are of course those who will insist that art – and its curation – must not necessarily articulate political statements; that we should be willing to indulge ourselves in l’art pour l’art. But as we have so forcefully been reminded over this period of long-overdue reform, silence too amounts to violence, and to allow silence to claim the space where your voice might otherwise be heard is to be complicit in the oppression of those pursuing change. I do not think that those responsible for Words intended any unsavory message and accordingly, do not mean to level any accusations, but one must ask: when instead of silence you choose simply words, vacuous, frivolous, and ultimately devoid of timely meaning, do you become not only complicit, but active in the repression of those who hope to fill the world with their voices laden with pain?

Jacob Barnes

is a writer and editor born in New York, raised in Dublin, Ireland, and currently living in London. After working in the film industry, he decided to start Soft Punk with Charlie in the summer of 2019. Since then, Jacob has worked as a writer, editor, publisher, and curator for numerous publications and organizations spanning the United States and Europe.

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