Writing as a visual image was first an important subject of my artwork during the seventies. I was committed to infusing art with autobiographical content as a political act, to bring female experience into art. My first method of constructing a visual autobiography had been self-portraiture in a narrative context. A couple of years later my figured image left the picture, in favor of my handwriting on layers of page- or dress-shaped translucent rice paper. I began to use writing as an image at the point when I realized that my handwriting was no longer the site for adolescent rehearsals of different identities but had finally stabilized into a system of elegantly undecipherable marks that seemed a more flexible, more metaphorical surrogate for myself.
In all my usages of writing as image, my hope is that the writing is visually interesting as graphic mark and as it occurs within the materiality of the work. This should be totally connected to what the words may say—the language of dreams, diary, and quotidian inner thought, of political rhetoric, or color—and also completely independent from the verbal meaning if not from the idea of language as sign and emblem of thought, so that the work can give pleasure, and, I hope, convey its meaning through visual cues alone, not linguistic ones. This was in fact the nature of my earliest experience with letters as images in art: many of the works of Judaica made by my artist parents included engraved and incised Hebrew letters that I could only appreciate as images because I don't read Hebrew.
I do also write critical prose about art, and in order to do so, I read, and certainly the look of a certain kind of theory text has at times become a still-life element for my painting: all those parentheses and virgules that reveal the phallic undercurrents of language. Recently I've also somewhat ruefully been brought to consider some similarities in the way one uses painting and verbal languages: in each case one can get carried away. Excess in painting is valued by many as "painterliness," decried by others as narcissistic virtuosity, or worse. In critical, non-fiction writing, you can only hope that the places where you grabbed hold of some words and galloped away with them will be called "poetic" and will have taken your reader someplace that approximates what you wanted to say in the first place. But "poetic" can also mean lacking intellectual rigor. Paint marks that are not self-aware but just there to show off, words that are in love with themselves, these are ever present parallel dangers inherent to a dual practice.
Like many artists who write, I am skittish about prejudices against intellectual artists and bilingual people in general. I feel compelled to assure others that my painting comes first and matters more to me. In fact these are separate disciplines I am interested in. Each answers specific needs, has specific purposes and audiences, and each must answer to the rules of their discipline. They are not exchangeable, although the concerns of my painting color the direction of my writing, and the textual research for my writing often enriches my painting.
In current paintings I combine the abstract scrawls of my handwriting with the careful script in which I was taught to write. I had cathected to the physical and aesthetic pleasure of writing out a letter as I was instructed to do, putting my weight into a thicker downstroke, lifting my wrist for a delicate upstroke. In the beginning, there was the beauty of the letter a. Now there is the Joy of embedding the gap between visual and verbal languages within each other's materiality. Language is almost a vestigial subject, just a place to hang my engagement with paint, yet the more I am interested in painting paint, the more language as image seems an essential conceptual anchor.