Artist Joshua Chambers
The art of language
The first thing that’s likely to catch your eye in Joshua Chambers’ exhibition, “let’s use our words,” currently on view at Artspace through Oct. 13, isn’t language at all. If you’re anything like me, it’s the color.
It wouldn’t be wrong to call the purples rich and the blues bright, or describe his use of ombré, the use of one color gradually blending into another, as tantalizing. Those descriptions wouldn’t be wrong, but they would be reductive. And even if it’s not the first thing you notice, language is what to pay attention to in this show. Or be disappointed by. This delightfully melancholy exhibition concerns itself with the failures of language, the constructions of meaning, and the occasionally futile fabrications of human life itself. And it does all of this without taking itself too seriously.
Artmaking, like communication, is a complicated undertaking. A good artist, particularly a painter, wrestles with the paradox purported by 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: that the profound was inexpressible, but somehow, we must express it anyway.
In his work, Chambers juggles this paradox. And I do mean juggles. I mean that he continuously tosses these ideas in the air and plays with them. He juxtaposes melancholy, occasionally desolate themes and ideas, with bright, pleasurable colors – and in that way, he explores the human condition.
But Chambers is not being obtuse or pretentious in this exhibition. His exhortation, “let’s use our words,” can be taken quite literally by a viewer. On one wall, you see an alphabet, which, at risk of being prescriptive, could be used as a sort of map’s key to this exhibit. It could be interpreted as Chambers’ visual alphabet: one image accompanies each letter. The symbols in the alphabet series, each assigned to specific words, can be used to understand the paintings’ narrative content.
“A is for apathy:” the corresponding image, a mattress attached to a string. This now becomes a symbol you can also find in “keep your emotions,” the first painting a viewer encounters if taking in the gallery chronologically.
“D is for discarded:” the purple yarn that appears in states of disrepair in several of the works on display.
“S is for sad:” a monkey in a life vest. This is the same monkey that appears about midway through the exhibition in a painting titled, “Well … f**k.” (If a viewer were reading this exhibition like a love story, this is the moment in which the relationship appears to be in choppy waters.)
It’s not such a leap to puzzle out this greater narrative, because when text exists in a painting, the viewer is meant to pay attention to it. Then, if you follow the exhibition chronologically, with this attention to the text and the symbols, a narrative, albeit abstract, unfolds. The paintings go from “they came together to make sense” to “you really tried” to the disappointed monkey in the life vest muttering four-letter words and so on.
What Chambers is also doing with sharp intelligence in this work is playing with the idea of life’s constructs. In “she worries me,” his use of perspective gives the ladder the appearance of resting against the back of the canvas, as though the color is the backdrop in a Hollywood movie and the moon is suspended from the sky by a string.
Through symbols, language and color, Chambers has written a love story on these canvases that rewards the patient, thoughtful, thorough viewer. Or, at least a very human story.
Or maybe he hasn’t written a story at all. Maybe language can’t express the inexpressible. And maybe art can’t either. But Chambers has created a new way of trying that’s pretty magnificent.
– Lauren Smart
Lauren Smart is a widely published art and theater critic and she is on the journalism faculty of Southern Methodist University.