Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power

Content warning

The artwork For Chicago includes flashing light effects that may affect photosensitive visitors.


Our lives are shaped by language and communication. Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power looks at the ways artists since the 1960s have used words to challenge our ideas about all of the messages we read, write, hear, and speak daily as well as their forms. In this innovative exhibition, artists remix conventional modes of communication, challenging our perceptions of language and, by extension, power.

Direct Message has four sections of works that redefine how we understand communication.

[REMOVE]( "Read more about REMOVE")

Jamal Cyrus , Cultr-Ops, 2008/2015. Graphite powder on paper. Framed: 79 9/16 × 63 1/8 in. (202.1 × 160.3 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Marilyn and Larry Fields in honor of Naomi Beckwith, 2018.32. Courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston.

Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

[REVIEW]( "Read more about REVIEW")

Three side-by-side screens show three different light-skinned men in suits. The men appear to be verbally addressing their audience.

Stan Douglas, Canadian, b. 1960
Evening, 1994
Color video installation
Dimensions variable
Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Restricted gift of Frances and Thomas Dittmer; and Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund, 1996.40

Photo: Michal Raz-Russo © MCA Chicago

[REFRAME]( "Read more about REFRAME")

Barbara Kruger, American, b. 1945
Untitled (We construct the chorus of missing persons), 1983
Gelatin silver mural prints with painted artist's frame
Overall: 121 7/8 × 72 7/8 × 2 in. (309.6 × 185.1 × 5.1 cm)
Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Restricted gift of Paul and Camille Oliver-Hoffmann, 1984.22.a-c

Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

[RECODE]( "Read more about RECODE")

In a large darkened room, large letters are illuminated in yellow in vertical rows on the floor. These letters cast a warm glow over the room.

Jenny Holzer, American, b. 1950
For Chicago, 2007
LED installation with amber diodes
Dimensions variable
Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Commissioned through the generosity of the Edlis/Neeson Art Acquisition Fund, 2007.35

Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

The exhibition also includes a screening of three short works organized by Christy LeMaster, Assistant Curator of Performance and Public Practice, and a workshop space created for ongoing conversation and workshops hosted by the MCA’s community partners organized by Gibran Villalobos, Assistant Curator of Performance and Public Practice.

This exhibition is organized by former MCA Assistant Curator Grace Deveney, with MCA Curatorial Assistant Jack Schneider.

Extended Exhibition Description

Our lives are shaped by language: the signs we follow, the news we read, and the grammar of these forms all dictate how we experience the world. Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power focuses on the ways artists reveal patterns within communication, exploring how shared media platforms shape our lives. Proceeding from a belief in the power of language as the basis for our outlook and actions, the exhibition considers the ways artists rearrange and reconfigure communication structures as starting points for social critique and political inquiry.

Media- and language-based art, often considered to be separate strands of artistic practice, are brought together for this exhibition. This exhibition looks back to the ways artists used text in visual art beginning in the 1960s, providing a useful lens for understanding the ways language and media operate today. By inviting audiences to both read and look, artists and collectives such as Art & Language, Mel Bochner, and Charles Gaines emphasized the importance of grammar, structures, and systems as foundational for the representation of all forms. Their work informed subsequent generations of artists featured in this exhibition who conceal, annotate, and remix conventional modes of communication, challenging the standards that structure language and, by extension, power.

The exhibition is divided into four thematic sections exploring shared approaches and processes among intergenerational artists. The first section, Remove, explores the erasure of text from sources such as newspapers and the ways this gesture reveals new meanings and subtexts embedded in the original forms. Review presents a sampling of artists transforming historic materials such as television broadcasts and written narratives in order to uncover how the past continues to inform the present in subtle and unacknowledged ways. Reframe focuses on the ways artists appropriate a myriad of communication forms including logos, slogans, and other forms of public information as a means of turning a critical lens on these structures. Recode, the final section, considers the ways artists rearrange and reconfigure language and its symbols in order to uncover hidden information and difficult truths. The exhibition demonstrates the ways that artists across generations directly address the relationship between our shared language and a range of systemic issues—including censorship, surveillance, and state-sanctioned violence— while envisioning alternative possibilities.

Funding

Lead support for Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power is provided by the Harris Family Foundation in memory of Bette and Neison Harris: Caryn and King Harris, Katherine Harris, Toni and Ron Paul, Pam Szokol, Linda and Bill Friend, and Stephanie and John Harris; Zell Family Foundation; Cari and Michael Sacks; and the Nancy Lauter McDougal and Alfred L. McDougal Exhibition Fund.

Major support is provided by Julie and Larry Bernstein and Karyn and Bill Silverstein.

Generous support is provided by Vicki and Bill Hood.

Other Works in the Exhibition

Seven black-and-white illustrations hang on a white wall. While some depict what appears to be images of violence, others show mundane objects like a bed, cart, and raft.

Eugenio Dittborn, Dust Clouds, Airmail Painting No. 99 (detail), 1992. Paint, stitching, and photographic silkscreen on fabric. Seven sections, overall: 165 1/2 × 275 3/4 in. (420 × 700 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Mary and Earle Ludgin by exchange, 2014.16.a-n. © 1992 Eugenio Dittborn.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
A square of warm, earthy scribbles of color is mounted on a background of gray similar smudges and scribbles.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (from the portfolio Dante's Inferno), 1964. Print on paper. 16 15/16 × 34 1/2 in. (43 × 87.6 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Mrs. Robert B. Mayer, 1991.60.31. © 1964 Robert Rauschenberg.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation Images

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020. Work shown: Stan Douglas, Evening, 1994. Video projection, 14:56 min. (loop). Installation composed of: 3 double-sided laser discs 1 custom made synchronization device. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, restricted gift of Frances and Thomas Dittmer; and Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund, 1996.40. © Stan Douglas

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020. Work shown: Jenny Holzer, For Chicago, 2007. LED installation with amber diodes; dimensions variable. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, commissioned through the generosity of the Edlis/Neeson Art Acquisition Fund, 2007.35. © 2007 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Direct Message: Art, Language, and Power, MCA Chicago October 26, 2019 – January 26, 2020.

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago