Text-centric work has new relevance
It’s been 25 years since Denton artist Annette Lawrence made the art on exhibit at UNT on the Square.
Lawrence couldn’t have predicted the tidal wave of social media that would make short, declarative statements and images a noisy and sometimes noisome nebula of groupthink. But the new age of self-publishing and poster-making renders the body of work in the exhibit both prophetic and mysterious.
The show, titled “Around Again,” gathers work Lawrence created as a recent art school graduate, from 1990-95. Lawrence is the chairwoman of the University of North Texas studio art program in the College of Visual Arts and Design, and when she casts a look around the gallery, she said she wonders if the work holds up.
Lawrence has a solid sense of design, and this earlier work — all done on brown paper and moving boxes — adroitly plays with the exactness of computer-generated graphics and that charming, organic feel of things handmade.
And while the work might feel more abstract to viewers, for Lawrence, the work is still keenly personal.
“My professors were always asking me, ‘Where are you in your work?’ It was so frustrating to me,” Lawrence said. “They wanted to know, where is your black face? Where is your black body in this work? I realized as a graduate student that I’d have to deal with race and sex.”
Lawrence said she sought out representation in literature — in the words of black writers such as Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde. Lawrence was also reading Monique Wittig, a French thinker who studied and wrote about radical feminism and lesbianism in French culture and worker movements in the late 1960s.
“My interest in text came from that,” Lawrence said. “Literature and music tell our stories the best. I adjusted that to my own sensibilities.”
In these pieces — which reflect the work she created in art school — the work isn’t representational. You won’t find the artist’s face in any of it.
It’s more akin to printmaking, or fiber, with repeating patterns (hinting at the traditional art of quiltmaking, or the language of computers and cultures alike) appearing in the pieces. Some pieces use a single word, written in hand in bright white against a heavy black block of paint — the artist’s way of playing with ideas of formal versus informal.
In other pieces, handwritten dates twist in infinity-symbol shapes, spirals and tendril-like lines. The dates look wispy, ephemeral. The numbers, Lawrence said, represent the dates of her menstrual cycles.
“It’s funny,” she said. “I always kept track of my menstrual cycles. It was something my mother insisted I do. And for years, I kept track of it. I was really careful. But if my doctor asked me when my last one was, I would never be able to just remember it.”
Lawrence’s art has always told a story about racial and sexual identity. And in the gallery, looking at art made a quarter-century ago, Lawrence sees herself in her chosen material: the brown paper bag.
The “brown paper bag test” was used in some American social institutions during segregation to determine whether a black person would have access to certain privileges. If the person’s complexion was lighter than the color of a paper bag, they would get access. Sometimes, if a black person’s complexion was the same color as the paper, that would grant them access.
“That test wasn’t just something white people used. Black people used it too,” Lawrence said. “I’m the exact color of that brown paper.”
The artist also includes the personal without making a self-portrait in several large pieces based on quilts. Quilts were used as code when abolitionists moved runaway slaves from place to place.
In the quilt series, Lawrence uses handwritten dates again. From piece to piece, the shapes built by dates shrink while a cameo-like silhouette of her grandmother grows. There is also a cartouche copied from one her mother owned in each of the quilt-inspired pieces.
One piece in “Around Again” feels especially totemic. It’s a simple piece of brown paper, a block of black paint covering much of the paper. Then, in bright white hand lettering, are translations of perhaps the best-known verse from the Bible — John 3:16.
“I was in a hotel room and I was flipping through the Gideon Bible,” Lawrence said. “And I saw all these translations of this verse. I’ve been interested in the relationship between text and code. Seeing this in stretched-out, distorted language, and in the foreign alphabet. It just hit me. At the time, I was thinking a lot about understanding written language without hearing it. I had a friend who was deaf, and we talked about that.”
“Around Again” includes work without text, too. The artist said she drew the floor plans of places she’d lived onto moving boxes. Some depict places she lived with her parents. Others were floor plans of places she lived alone. All are drawn by hand, from memory.
Consciously and unconsciously, places influence people, Lawrence said. Using them in photocopy transfers, the artist creates pieces that look like textile patterns.
And looking at the flattened cardboard boxes, Lawrence recalls how they once packed her Toyota Tercel when she moved her whole life — filling the trunk and back seat.
“The show helps me see how one thing has led to another,” she said. “I’ve only seen this work in reproductions for years, and it is good to see it in person again.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.
What: art by UNT professor Annette Lawrence, made between 1990 and 1995
Where: UNT on the Square, 109 N. Elm St.
When: The exhibit runs through Jan. 30. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
How much: Admission is free.
On the Web: www.annettelawrence.net, http://untonthesquare.unt.edu
More art: Lawrence has an exhibit of new work in the main exhibit space of Conduit Gallery, 1626 Hi Line Drive, Suite C, in Dallas. The exhibit, “Standard Time,” runs through Feb. 13. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 214-939-0064 or visit www.conduitgallery.com