Shannon EbnerOctober 2011
~ Hammer Museum, Los Angeles ~
For nearly a decade, Shannon Ebner has developed a quickly recognizable approach—one at the unruly convergence of photography, sculpture, and language—that insistently frames the space around and (especially) between things. Most often, these voids or breaks occur between letters and other linguistic symbols that provide the ostensible subject matter. In an earlier series of defining black-and-white images, the artist photographed words, in all caps, constructed out of flimsy cardboard and placed in desolate settings that read as literally blank fields: In USA, 2003, for example, the word NAUSEA leans woozily on a cliff above the ocean, and upon repeated viewings one might be as struck by the wild and matted chaparral occupying the foreground as the blunt word occupying the middle.
Ebner’s ongoing body of work, titled “The Electric Comma,” 2011–, which recently appeared in various manifestations at the Hammer Museum and LAXART in Los Angeles (as well as this year’s Venice Biennale), furthers the artist’s investment in the potential of such voided spaces, with an intensified focus on the structure and syntax of language. Many of these black-and-white pieces employ a modular alphabet first devised by the artist in 2007, in which letterforms are constructed with cinder blocks arranged on a pegboard grid and photographed, with a cardboard slash symbol (“/”) or asterisk (“*”) occasionally appearing as a graphic substitutes for a letter. Several works using this method were on view at LAXART. In C*MMA, PAUSE, and DELAY (all 2011), each word indicates space (or time) between words, and each work consists of five framed photos—one for each character—but the three works are hung along a single horizontal line, paradoxically denying punctuation its place.
Agitate, 2010, also at LAXART, operates to similarly contradictory ends. Here, Ebner assembles the titular word with her familiar cardboard letters, which she casually propped against a concrete wall with rebar rods and photographed singularly. (A and T are duplicate constructs.) Subsequently, the word AGITATE is broken across four discrete, framed images; the primary agitation proposed by the piece thereby being the disruption of legibility, of reading itself: A sign with such a command—“agitate”—is a possible call to arms, with unavoidable political implications, but in this case the potential action seems pinned against the wall, cut, and voided.
Such frustrations, so elegantly choreographed, point to the instability of language as a signifying agent. Whether the words are constructed of concrete or flimsy cardboard, their assumed solidity quickly gives way to fragmented letters and the spaces between them. In the courtyard of the Hammer, Ebner repurposed four large light boxes to display ASTER/SK R/SK R/SK, 2011, in which the word ASTER/SK is written in the cinder-block alphabet and broken into two lines, with the light boxes intermittently flashing, illuminating, and negating individual characters. In an adjacent gallery, a series of four photographs focused on the letter X, as constructed by the artist (variously using letters of cinder block and cardboard painted black) and as “found” (spray-painted on a police-car door and tracing a residue of glue). The works’ titles—XYSYST, EKS, XIS, EXSIZ (all 2011)—all play on the word exist, with X acting as both a primary act of inscription (“X marks the spot”) and a marker of death (e.g., the crossed-out face of Osama bin Laden on the cover of Time magazine).
Another grouping of seven pictures, collectively titled Incendiary Distress Signals, 2011, documents arrangements of road flares on asphalt, some still smoldering, with a rock partly slathered in white paint serving as a “period” in the far right image. In context, it’s nearly impossible to resist reading these forms as letters, albeit illegible ones. (Curiously, the work also recalls Lawrence Weiner’s THE RESIDUE OF A FLARE IGNITED UPON A BOUNDARY, 1969—an important example of that artist’s use of signs outside of language.) If Ebner is signaling distress, it is the continual distressing of language that consistently fires the ignition for her singular, ongoing project.