Kevin McNamee-Tweed is skilled at low-budget conceptualism. His works take some of the most esoteric and complicated linguistic theory of the past 50 years and unravel it with a collection of simply rendered drawings of wordplay. There is nothing flashy here, no glitter or technical bravado that inspires coos of awes from the viewer. These drawings lack the slick sheen of neo-photorealism painting or the subtle gloss of neo-minimalist sculpture, and they certainly don’t need a power cord, projector, or soundtrack. But, what they do have in common with these neighboring neo-aesthetics is the uncanny return to the past.
This is a hallmark of the past 30 years of art when, for whatever reason, the aesthetic zeitgeist decided it needed to re-think some areas it had hurried over in its rushed charge away from the fall of modernism. And, who can blame it? Throughout the pluralistic 1960s and 1970s, the post-modern era produced enough ideas and artworks to fill up the course of at least 3 runs of modernism with more to spare. So, these returns are warranted, and they illustrate the attention to detail that often produces good art.
Kevin McNamee-Tweed turns back to Jacques Derrida and his concept of the trace. First made known to the American reader in his text Of Grammatology from 1976, the trace is a deconstruction of the integrity of a linguistic sign. Take for example the word: cat. At the level of written signification, “cat” signifies a feline. Yet, as a piece of written text, we can supplement the letter b for the letter c. Now, we have a “bat” which, based on context, is either the item used by a ballplayer or cricket player, or one of those flying animals that live under Congress Bridge during part of the year. When we write, or speak “cat,” that c has to present absent of any b. However, for Derrida, that b is not entirely absent. In order for c to be identifiable, it is dependent on all the other letters from which it differs. So, the b or the h (hat), or whatever letter you want, is present through this deferral. The c carries the trace of those letters not present. As Derrida explains, “whether written or spoken, no element can function without relating to another element which itself is not simply present. Each element is constituted on the basis of the trace in it of the other elements of the system.” Thus, all language is subjected to undecidability being constantly rendered by a deforming and reforming slippage of itself and its meaning.
When carried beyond language, as Derrida did, this idea revels a deeper instability and inevitable collapse of autonomy for all systems of thought.
For those of you who feel you don’t understand what I just explained let me reassure you, you do. If you found yourself enjoying Words, you got it because Words is just that: a demonstration of Derrida’s trace making words slip and slide across the walls of Pump Project. Words reminds us of what we already know and what Derrida used to deconstruct the oppressive rigor of structuralism: meaning is in play. And in that state, it can be humorous, dangerous, clever, and even bland. Meanings are indeterminate and without foundation. They are contingent on what is around them. In fact, if we take anything away from Derrida and McNamee-Tweed, it should be the reminder that the very word “meaning” is meaning-less. It is absent of a concrete foundation and is reliant on so many other words to compensate to its “less.”
Words illustrates the complete normalization of a linguistic theory that was radical some 50 years ago in a way that is unassuming. And while its puns may make us smile, the show speaks to the larger themes of recycling and re-examination that are rampant today. Through animating the mechanism of language, the works in this exhibition remind us of the need to study the past so as to better understand the present and how meaningless it all really is. Our faith in ourselves to determine a stable meaning of anything is nothing but a sham, however knowledgeable we believe we are. But this is not the trap of language, but instead—as this show demonstrates, the freedom it offers and demands.
Posted 14th October 2015 by Arnold, H.C.