Gallery Joe, through February 28
By Deborah Krieger
Sharka Hyland’s “this thing we call a city,” on display at Gallery Joe until February 28, is a strange sort of exhibition. While at first glance it might seem underwhelming, consisting of what look like mere handwritten words on paper, on closer inspection—and upon actually reading the drawn words—the viewer is pulled into a collaboration with Hyland to create imagery in the viewer’s mind.
“this thing we call a city” consists of nine drawings, all hanging on one wall in the stark white inner room at the gallery. The drawings, neatly and precisely done, are of text: namely, of quotations by famous individuals such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Baudelaire, Franz Kafka, and Walter Benjamin, all discussing various aspects of city living. The works are drawn either in pencil or watercolor on plain, white-creamy paper. The viewer immediately notices the strange juxtaposition of quiet white room and loud, colorful city, with the drawings serving not only bridge that large gap but also to recreate the city in the room.
With such evocative texts as Hyland uses, her aim quickly becomes clear: instead of creating paintings based on Wright’s or Baudelaire’s descriptions of city life, she invites us to create the paintings ourselves by presenting the viewer with their words about the subject. This technique works especially well with several of the drawings, particularly a drawing of the words of the poet W.C. Williams in W.C. Williams, The Great Figure, which reads:
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city
By recreating his words, she has invited us to make the imagery Williams has described ourselves, thus involving the viewer to take part in the creation of a whole work. Other drawings in the series are a bit more complicated in their use of imagery to link with the viewer. Baudelaire’s quotation, for example, is difficult to appreciate unless you speak French, while Frank Lloyd Wright’s two drawn quotations are typically grandiose and flowery in their description of how he views “the city’s flesh.” Another lovely example of imagery comes in the brief, two-line prose work by Ezra Pound:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black, bough.
The last highlight, in terms of sheer written power, comes in Hyland’s choice of Kafka; the work Franz Kafka, Amerika (37), 1911-1914 reads:
And in the morning as well as in the evening and in dreams at
night, an incessant, urgent traffic rushed through this street,
which, when seen from above, was an always new mixture of dis-
torted human forms and the roofs of all sorts of vehicles, out of
which arose a renewed, multiplicitous, wilder combination of
noise, dust and smells, and all of this was seized and permeated
by a powerful light, which was continually scattered, carried
off, and eagerly reassembled by the mass of objects, and which
appeared as physical to the perplexed eye as though a pane of
glass extended over everything was being smashed with full
force at every moment, over and over again, above this street.
Ultimately, “this thing we call a city” does cause the viewer to wonder: since the act of choosing and mounting the quotations on the wall to facilitate this viewer-artist collaboration is an act of art itself, does Hyland’s copying and drawing of the quotations really add anything to the experience, or to the understanding of what the intended effect of the exhibition is? I am not sure. That Hyland has chosen to turn the text into drawings of text seems like more of an afterthought than an intrinsic part of the connection she is attempting to make among word, mental image, and drawing.
This exhibit is not so much about the medium Hyland uses as much as it is about the sheer power of words to summon up all sorts of pictures in our mind’s eye. “this thing we call a city” asks the question: is all written imagery inherently a work of art in and of itself, or do the maker and location matter as well?
Deborah Krieger is a student at Swarthmore College studying art history, with interests in foreign languages, film and media studies, and making art. She writes her own arts blog, I On the Arts and is interested in going into curatorial work or into arts and culture criticism.