Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Beyond Typography: The Art of Lily-Robert Foley

by Sarah Schwartz

02 Dec 2011

Language and art are not strangers, I could begin. But strolling through a gallery of any of these works, one finds text as a narration of the visual or as a complementary quotation, rather than language as both subject and medium.

Such is the aim of Visual Poetry, commonly termed ‘vispo’. Visual poets act as painters, using text to create poetry that is a visual rather than aural experience. Their work goes beyond typography – a form which is gaining recognition in the art world – to explore the treacherous terrain of language which twists, turns and folds back on itself, evading containment.

Lily Robert-Foley, a poet more likely to identify as a scientist than a visual artist, makes what she calls machines. Inspired by the Cascajal stone, a three-thousand-year-old tablet of never-before-seen visual signs, which took scientists nearly ten years to identify as language, Robert-Foley’s work asks what quality of language is communicated beyond identification of words and meanings.

Robert-Foley’s graphemachines aim to embody those very qualities by giving prominence to structure. In graphemachine.0.16 (Green Lantern Press, 2008) and graphemachine.38.1 (Self-published, 2007), Robert-Foley takes arbitrary phrases, breaks them into words, assigns a glyph to each word, and then reassembles the piece. In the case of graphemachine.0.16, she sets glyphs based on the shape the mouth must make to speak the word. In graphemachine.38.1, glyphs are based on associative process: a dormant action in the text haunting the immediate reading. ‘Room’ becomes ‘a room is room’ – the tautology indicates the act of ‘pointing to oneself’, which is then given a glyph and, in turn, united with the others.

Each graphemachine translates a text into a visual work by exploring that which is communicated inherently in language – its anatomy. The translation is not set in place, but alongside the original text – it is coincident – offering us a reading that is a writing. Or a drawing.

It would be easy to assume that the final image is the machine, but this would be an oversimplification. Robert-Foley is clearly Derridean in her influence. Wee Private Eye shown at Chicago’s Green Lantern Gallery in 2008, visually explores the evasiveness of meaning in language by crossing the central phrase with fading past, future, and latent iterations evoking a sense of haunting. Her untitled snowflake series cuts words out of existing texts, literalising one’s inability to access meaning. Using bank forms as material takes the viewer one step further into Derrida’s world, destabilising dominant parties. By cutting through ‘Nom/Prenom’, Robert-Foley denies her ability to declare an ‘I’.

An artist clearly in debt to Derrida’s work could hardly wish simply to demonstrate the priority of structure by constructing a visual representation of language. Therefore, the final image cannot be the machine.

Robert-Foley shows her work complete – all elements of a machine are included in any exhibition or publication. In doing so, Robert-Foley offers not a visual interpretation of différance but a way of reading. She offers a tool rather than an explanation.

Sarah Schwartz holds arts degrees from NYU and University of the Witwatersrand. Her work has been published in USA Today and Omnia Vanitas Review among others and has been performed in the United States and South Africa.