Archie Scott Gobber and Beniah Leuschke make art with words. With their oversized, hard-edged letters painted on canvas with enamel, Gobber's works resemble signs, but the messages they spell out are rarely straightforward. Leuschke also uses words as raw conceptual material, and his practices include cutting letters out of security envelopes or printing them on Sentra or vinyl. Both arrange text in ways designed to spark unexpected inferences and generate new meanings. The Pitch asked the two artists, along with guest curator James Martin, to talk about At Wit's End, their intriguing and sometimes cryptic exhibition at the Epsten Gallery.
The Pitch: Why pair your work for an exhibition?
Gobber: Beniah and I both maintained studios just down the hall from each other at the Studios Inc. facility [formerly Review Studios], so we had interactions over a five-year period regarding our work and the similarities. Beniah once said to me, "You take half the dictionary and leave me the other." This seemed confrontational to me at the time because I didn't think our work was that similar. The obvious reasons to pair our work are, we both deal in text and language and the ambiguities therein; we both have a high level of craft in our work; we both, in different and similar ways, have a sense of game play in our work; and we both rely on wit, context and conceptual ideas.
Leuschke: I've known Scottie for many years. We've exhibited together in a number of shows and have always had a rapport. I appreciate his sense of humor, work ethic and process, and I feel like we are confronting a very similar type of problem in very different ways.
What appeals to you about working with words?
Gobber: Words are something that we all see as precise, but often they are not. They can be twisted in intent and taken from context — as in media or trying to decipher the intent behind, say, a text message. They can be taken from their original meaning or void of a voice with inflection. They mean different things to different people and they can create a visual in the mind of the reader. Beyond that, I just love painting letters — the shapes, the styles. They are architectural symbols that, when put together, can say powerful things.
Leuschke: There is something seductively simple and accessible about language. It's something that we all have in common. I'm fascinated by how quickly words can go haywire. There are multiple messages competing for our attention embedded in the things that we write and speak. William Teague said, "Nothing is so simple that it can't be misunderstood." The misunderstanding frequently creates a hilarious tension and a parallel meaning that creates a wonderful field for improvisation.
James, your exhibition essay centers on the idea that, as viewers, we can choose to focus on positive interpretations of artwork. Why did you decide to discuss Leuschke's and Gobber's works from that perspective?
Martin: A couple years ago, I had a studio visit with Scott, and we talked about this very topic of looking and thinking about art in a positive or optimistic way. He has a painting of the words "I've got troubles of my own," where the word trouble is superimposed over [the word] triumphs. This is an idea I've been kicking about for a few years, the notion that appreciating a work of art is up to the viewer. It sounds like "no kidding, duh." But when you are trained like I am, working with contemporary art, the main criteria seems to be whether or not this work is well-made or if it makes sense in terms of what the artist thinks his or her goals are. At some point, I realized that content does matter to me, and it's up to me to decide what I think about that content.
There's an art collection in town that, at first glance, has what many people would think to be distressing images: individuals who are ill or in distress, skeletons, references to death or industrial decay. I was doing some work on this collection and recognized that if I was going to find any value in it, I was going to have to create my own value. That's what led me to that perspective, along with reading postmodern theory in graduate school.
Archie, the words in your work in this exhibition seem less legible and more design-intensive. What does this show tell us about where your work is on its evolutionary path right now?
Gobber: I think that in this body of work, I was trying to get away from the sign look that I rely on heavily — advertising, billboards, etc. — and make paintings. Not to say that my signlike work isn't painting, but to really be a painter. I think the design element stems from that. I have been making work that is more visually engaging, beyond just the reading, making them more difficult to decipher. The end messages in the work in this show are more broad-based, not so specific as, say, politics or some current catchphrase.
As far as the evolutionary path, I see continuing along with the more painterly, design-intensive work, but I also see staying with a more signlike look for work that happens quickly and has a very current message.
Beniah, you use junk e-mails as a background graphic for some of your works. Why did you make that choice?
Leuschke: Junk e-mail is a character in our background — it's something that we take for granted. I'm fascinated by the junk e-mail as a clunky solicitation, scam and awkward search-engine debris. There's something humorous and approximate about how they're constructed. They seem like sentences made entirely from scrap parts. They're insidious and sly but also absurd and endearing.
I use them as a visual shortcut, an ignoble placeholder for an image, to call into question the convention of a painting on a wall, to examine the relationship of language and idea, and potentially make the viewer temporarily suspicious of all the words that we see every day.
Editor's note: Theresa Bembnister this month received the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition's 2012 Oklahoma Art Writing and Curatorial Fellowship Achievement in Writing award.