How Do You Read a Painting? The Bass Shows You How in "Phraseology"

Vaughn Spann, Soul of the revolutionary
Vaughn Spann, Soul of the revolutionary Photo courtesy of the Bass
The practice of phraseology analyzes how words and grammatical phrases at face value can take on a greater meaning collectively rather than individually. The scholarly examination strives to understand the vernacular multiplicity of words when placed together, rearranged, and flipped around.

For Leilani Lynch, curator at the Bass, and Kylee Crook, the museum's director of education, phraseology was the springboard to examine how the visual arts are very much included in its scope. With the recent opening of the group exhibition "Phraseology," the Bass places several artistic voices in dialogue with one another as well as viewers, challenging the notion that art should be read off its aesthetic attributes alone.

So how to go about reading a painting beyond technique and medium?

For the exhibit's artists, the text highlighted in their works converses with literary tradition while challenging the constraints and confines of language. Some pieces are easy to understand, like New World School of the Arts graduate Kelly Breez's sestet of humorous acrylic and bar-top resin works, which encourage readers to think about absurd situations: "How to Pretend Like Prince Never Left Us" and "How to Tell If Someone Is One of Those Evil Yelp People with No Soul."
click to enlarge
Kelly Breez, "How-to" series
Photo by Isabella Marie Garcia
Gradually, "Phraseology" moves to pieces that present phrases that must be read against visual and structural symbols, as in the late John Baldessari's "Tetrad Series" and the heavy-hitting poster prints of Teresa Margolles' Receipt. Baldessari juxtaposes the words of Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa against appropriated images of Spanish painter Francisco Goya's practice to generate interpretative association, while Margolles' training as a forensic pathologist in Mexico City feeds her conceptual practice as she investigates the social consequences of violent deaths.

Stacked repeatedly on the floor of the exhibition are copies of a Walmart receipt for a single box of shotgun ammunition costing $5.48 plus tax that 23 individuals paid the price for in one of the deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. The shooter targeted Latinx individuals in El Paso, Texas, and Margolles invites attendees to take a print as a reminder of the reality of racially motivated killings.

From both a curator and educator's viewpoint, Lynch and Crook regard the impetus for the exhibition as emerging out of the Bass' permanent collection.
click to enlarge
Installation view of "Phraseology"
Photo by Isabella Marie Garcia
"We began planning this exhibition last year and noticed a thread of works involving text in various forms, from the most subtle inclusion of text to the blatant forwardness of an artist's own remarks on a canvas," Lynch says. "As this wasn't a subject matter that the Bass had thematically explored before, we built the list of artists from within the museum's archive and asked ourselves, 'How can we expand this conversation?'"

While the English language is the boundary many of the show's artists bounce within and around, some works explore dialects and defunct languages. The lifespan of vocabulary and how it reflects the communities in which it is spoken is particularly ominous in Jamilah Sabur's Mnemonic Alphabet (T/Tcápn), which commemorates the now-extinct Karankawa language of the indigenous people who inhabited South Padre Island in southern Texas.

As archaic as the black rotary phone of John Giorno's Dial-A-Phone that welcomes visitors upon entry into the exhibition is, the fleetingness of how people communicate with one another is also highlighted. For example, the tap of a touch screen feels more familiar than the tactile swish of a rotary dial. As exemplified by the Bass' multimedia presentation of the digitalization of language and communication channels, what we're saying is amplified by how we're saying it.
click to enlarge
Installation view of Sister Mary Corita Kent, E Eye Love
Photo by Isabella Marie Garcia
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." While the children's rhyme is often used as a defense against verbal attacks, the study of phraseology looks at the power of choice regarding vocal expression. Words have the power to carry the emotions and weight of life as utilized by those subject to power and those subjecting power. The artists in "Phraseology" employ the power dynamic of the writer and the reader as those physically creating the inner workings of the individual and collective psyche versus those consuming and internalizing what they see.

As the viewer observes the works on display at the Bass, the watchful eye of Sister Mary Corita Kent's serigraph in E Eye Love carefully watches. The tenor of the times is reinforced through Albert Camus' text resting below it: "Should like to be able to love my country and still love justice."

"Phraseology." On view through April 16, 2023, at the Bass, 2100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7530; Tickets cost $15. Wednesday through Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.