Spelling things out, photographically
Image and text are one of those fundamental conceptual pairings, like poetry and prose or color and line. They’re not opposed. In fact, they’re closely associated — while always demonstrably other. They don’t necessarily come together, but when they do, memorable things can happen, as in the poetry and prose of Shakespeare’s plays, the color and line of Matisse’s cut-outs, or countless photographs where the image incorporates a letter, word, or even more elaborate verbal element. Such images take the expression “reading a photograph” to a whole new level.
The idea behind “W-O-R-D-P-L-A-Y” is as straightforward as the execution can be playful: Put text into the picture. The show runs through June 9 at Panopticon Gallery. There are more than 50 works in the show, by a dozen artists. A few of the works are mixed-media pieces, so not every artist is a photographer.
Signage is a popular source of texts. The middle-of-nowhere sign in Randall Armor’s “Somewhere in South Australia” is half a world away — figuratively no less than literally — from the no less forlorn marquee sign designating an abandoned drive-in in Frank Armstrong’s “Theatre — Parsons, KS.” They differ in dimensionality, ornateness, font. One of the pleasures of “W-O-R-D-P-L-A-Y” is the reminder it affords of how the appearance of words can vary almost as much as their meanings can.
Armstrong, who has eight photographs in the show, has a particular fondness for architectural signage that’s distressed, oddball, or both. (How oddball? Check out that auto atop a pole in “Car Wash.”) The sign atop the Union Oyster House — that’s what it looks like, anyway — plays peek-a-boo in Bill Franson’s “HOUSE, Boston, MA.” In Franson’s “Discarded Alphabet,” words go out the window — they go out period — and he goes straight to letters.
Greg Scheffer likes old LP covers, the campier the better. Sometimes Scheffer ups the ante, through juxtposition. A seriously décolleté Jayne Mansfield on all fours stares at the viewer from the cover of an album called “For Men Only.” Next to it in the photographic frame is another album, its cover featuring a querulous Jack Benny with four overgrown boys-will-be-boys types behind them. It’s hubba-hubba hilarity on parade.
Shannon McDonald achieves a similarly sardonic effect with her rather garish color collages, which make a fashion-model image the visual axis around which disjunct elements swirl and grind. Jim Fitts has several collages, too, though somewhat more subdued. One of them manages to incorporate both an August Sander image (the two boxers) with the card sleeve from the back of a book from the Wellfleet Public Library. Speaking of books, Stephen Sheffield has several one-of-a-kind artist’s volumes in “W-O-R-D-
P-L-A-Y,” their happy solidity a reminder of the weight that texts can both bear and convey. Nikki Segarra’s “Namesake” is a photograph of a most curious volume, with a grassy background that puts it far from any library or bookshop.
The texts can be both more intimate and domestic. Rachel Phillips prints photographic images on vintage envelopes. “Vintage” meaning “used”: They have stamps, addresses, and cancellations on them. Samuel Quinn photographs typewriter keys and a typed text behind and above them. Eva Timothy’s “Hallelujah” adds sound, of a sort, to text and image. She places a lens over that particular word on a musical score so that it jumps out from the staff — visual fortissimo!
Also on exhibit at Panopticon is a selection of work from students in Sheffield’s course on black-and-white photography at New England School of Photography. Corinne DiPietro’s “Off Route One” has an air of sturdy mystery. Alyssa Minahan’s “Remnants” presents post-magic-hour delicacy. Timothy Bartlett’s “Marshall Street” offers a very different view of the Union Oyster House from Franson’s. Images, like words, have synonyms, too.