Fillip 2 — Winter 2006

The Bondo Between Word and Image
Donato Mancini

Simon Morley’s Writing on the Wall is styled as a major survey of modern art that “traces the growing bond between word and image.” As such, it is apparently supposed to help fill a visible gap in the general understanding of the role of text in modern art. Morley suggests, as Joseph Kosuth said, that language is the “most suitable means of interrogating hidden assumptions and ideologies lurking beneath apparently purely visual surfaces of art.” Morley’s own basic assumptions are that as Euro-American art became increasingly self-reflexive, it was natural, if not inevitable, that text would become a key component. He also assumes that as the urban environment became increasingly saturated with text, it was also natural that text should become a basic material for visual art, available as an aspect of image making. If these assumptions are correct, then the extensive use of text in visual art has to be appreciated as one of the most important formal developments in the art in the twentieth century. An extensive critical anthology of text-based, or text-dependent visual artworks, is therefore due. Not surprisingly, the author is an accomplished and respectable text artist himself. He has a particular interest in “the dynamics of seeing and reading, immediate sensual experience and memory.” Viewable on his personal website (, Morley’s major series so far are what he calls “book-paintings.” From a distance they look like small rectangular monochromes, but on closer inspection reveal text only a touch darker than the ground. This text is often comprised of title pages or frontispieces of books with particular cultural resonance, either because they are famous or indicative of some abiding cultural theme. Morley seems to have consciously chosen to serve this “tradition” of text-art that Writing on the Wall seeks to elucidate, and the intersections of literature with contemporary art are of particular interest to him, perhaps because they remain under-explored.

As a writer who extends his own practice through text-art, I too have a vested interest in the subject. While Writing on the Wall is in many ways impressively well-researched, and, up to a point, quite original in its cross-disciplinary perspective, it is mired by its uncertain sense of purpose. The book’s thesis, makes a fairly serious claim that demands thorough elucidation. But at some point in the process it seems editorial decisions were made that the book would have to serve as a textbook (first of all) for undergraduate art history courses, and (far worse) that it should be useable as a general-purpose twentieth century art textbook. These decisions compromised Morley’s ability to “[fill] ... in a gap in current scholarship on text in art” or to present its claim about the “growing bond of word and image” in an ultimately convincing way.

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About the Author

Donato Mancini is author of numerous chapbooks (including 9-11/7-Eleven, published by Open Space) and the book Ligatures, published by New Star Books. He lives in Vancouver.

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