Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language

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Barbara Kruger, Your body is a battleground, 1989, photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 112 x 112 inches. collection of The Broad Museum, Los Angeles, California

When used as both object and subject (objectively and subjectively), written words open our minds to an endless array of meaning. All letters in every written language have an aesthetic quality to them. They can add substance and context to a work of art, such as in the work of Pop Artists like Roy Lichtenstein (who used text in his comic strip inspired paintings to make socially conscious statements and satirize popular culture), or become works of art in their own right such as the New York City subway car graffiti murals by Lady Pink and others. Text carries archetypal and personal significance depending on an array of factors, not limited to how they are arranged, accented, or inflected.

Artists including Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Lorraine O’Grady, Yoko Ono, Shadi Harouni, Linda Herritt, Meg Hitchcock,  JF Lynch, Tim Rollins and KOS and Howard Schwartzberg, have each created visual artworks by literally and figuratively using letters and words. These letters and words hold significance to the maker, however, the viewer ultimately becomes an active and crucial participant in reading, comprehending and interpreting the piece in their own way.

According to educator and reading specialist, Gail E. Tompkins, comprehension is a “creative, multifaceted process” dependent upon four language skills: phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics (Tompkins, 2011). In addition to understanding the formal aspects of the text, the viewer gives new meaning to the work through their engagement with the text based upon a myriad of different facets including education, experience, spirituality and culture. Visual art and visual culture (such as comics and graphic novels, see: Excelsior! An Educational Framework Via Comic Book Culture) can strengthen comprehension skills through an experiential application of the studio habits of mind, multiple intellegences, Socratic seminars and critiques. In visual art, comprehension is both an individual and interpersonal activity. According to Gersten, Fuchs, Williams and Baker (2001), there are several strategies for comprehending a text. Seven of these strategies are:

  • Making Inferences: In everyday terms we refer to this as “reading between the lines”. It involves connecting various parts of texts that aren’t directly linked in order to form a sensible conclusion. A form of assumption, the reader speculates what connections lie within the texts.
  • Planning and Monitoring: This strategy centers around the reader’s mental awareness and their ability to control their comprehension by way of awareness. By previewing text (via outlines, table of contents, etc.) one can establish a goal for reading-“what do I need to get out of this”? Readers use context clues and other evaluation strategies to clarify texts and ideas, thereby monitoring their level of understanding.
  • Asking Questions: To solidify one’s understanding of passages of texts readers inquire and develop their own opinion of the author’s writing, character motivations, relationships, etc.
  • Determining Importance: Pinpointing the important ideas and messages within the text. Readers are taught to identify direct and indirect ideas and to summarize the relevance of each.
  • Visualizing: With this sensory-driven strategy readers form mental and visual images of the contents of text. Being able to connect visually allows for a better understanding with the text through emotional responses.
  • Synthesizing: This method involves marrying multiple ideas from various texts in order to draw conclusions and make comparisons across different texts; with the reader’s goal being to understand how they all fit together.
  • Making Connections: A cognitive approach also referred to as “reading beyond the lines”, which involves (A) finding a personal connection to reading, such as personal experience, previously read texts, etc. to help establish a deeper understanding of the context of the text, or (B) thinking about implications that have no immediate connection with the theme of the text.

If you compare these strategies with the studio habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art) it becomes evident how nicely they align. Additionally, applying Feldman’s Model of Art Criticism is essentially using literary comprehension strategies for visual works of art. The overarching artistic experience enables us to observe a work of art, analyze and interpret its meaning and integrate the aforementioned tactics with our prior knowledge and lived experience. The artists featured in this post present us with challenging compositions, which can be deciphered in novel ways based on our ability to comprehend visual and written language and make associations to what we are already familiar with in regards to text and imagery.

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Shadi Harouni, MOSADEGH, 2017, plexiglass, light, fixtures, 16 x 40 x 2.7 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Smack Mellon.

Shadi Harouni’s artwork scrutinizes the history of resistance in marginalized communities and the creative strategies that individuals and groups use to resist erasure. She uses linguistics in an expressive way to symbolize the social and emotional relationship between people and the culture at large. For example, her sculpture MOSADEGH (2017), illuminates the narrative of Reza Nik, a shomemaker from Hamedan, Iran who named his shop Mosadeqh (the name of the first elected prime minister of Iran who was overthrown in a CIA coup) several days after the Revolution. Harouni’s poignant adaptation of the neon sign (one that is very familiar to commercial establishments throughout the world) installed by Nik, plays with the way the original letters that in Farsi read as ‘MSDQ’, were changed over time due to orders from the local authorities. After he was told to change his shop’s name, so that it wouldn’t bear likeness to the deposed prime minister, Nik dropped the first letter. The sign then spelled out the word “Sedqh,” which in Farsi means “truth.” As fate would have it, the light in the ‘S’ burnt out after a few years and the sign spelled “Deqh,” which means death by heartbreak. While there is a substantial amount of unpacking and prior knowledge that is needed (especially if you are not familiar with Arabic linguistics), the imagery of a neon sign with burnt out letters is a familiar sight within cities and towns throughout the world. We have likely encountered a sign advertising or describing something that is missing letters, thereby altering the meaning.

Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger’s oft-monumental conceptual artwork, utilizes words and phrases that address modern clichés, stereotypes and proverbial ideas about identity and materialism. Kruger generally applies bold lettering (typically using the typeface Helvetica) with black and white photography, which raise our awareness about the ways in which commercial advertisements, news and mass media information affects the decisions we make (such as the products we buy, the way we act towards each other, the ideologies we hold as truth, etc). Kruger’s application of pronouns (ex: “you”, “your”, “I”, “we” and “they”) give weight to her tabloid-esque satire of patriarchal systems and other social, political and economic hierarchies.

While Kruger’s most iconic work (see: I shop therefore I am, 1987; and Your body is a battleground, 1989) fuses text with imagery, both she and Holzer suggest that the words themselves are aesthetic. The bold letters form engaging sentences, which interact with the public space or environment (such as a gallery or museum) where they’re displayed and implore us to comprehend them in conjunction to out prior knowledge and personal experience.

Holzer’s Truisms (1977-79) are a series of slogans and maxims addressing the “usual baloney they are fed” in daily life (Tate Modern, “Jenny Holzer,” gallery label, October 2000). Holzer constructed her Truisms in a manner akin to subversive popular advertisement so that they reach and captivate a large and diverse audience. A close attention to the detail of Holzer’s work by the public, reveals that these dictums are in fact, works of creative provocation. Holzer makes reading comprehension a fun, humorous and engaging activity.

Another artist who mines through mass media information and profoundly changes the way it is comprehended is Lorraine O’Grady. Her Cutting Out the New York Times (from 5 to November 20, 1977) series combined disparate sentences from New York Times headlines in order to make relevant connections to her lived experiences. Through an artistic process of employing the cut-up poetry technique, this body of work makes uniquely introspective statements derived from public information. These works of art humanize headlines and other mass media buzzwords, which are generally used to captivate and attract viewers (to sell papers or generate online ad revenue via ‘clicks’) by sensationalizing the human experience. Cutting Out the New York Times largely commented on her intersectionality as a woman of color within the arts scene.

Yoko Ono uses words in an expressive and symbolic manner to encourage participation between the artist and viewer and raise awareness about ourselves, each other and the collective environment we share. In artworks such as her Instruction pieces, Ono presents written instructions for us to comprehend, synthesize and engage with in a meaningful manner, which requires deeply personal connections to be made from Ono’s often open ended sentences. These text based works place creative responsibility on the viewer and are intended to be visualizes as “paintings to be constructed in your head” (Persse, 2010).

Meg Hitchcock, Mantras & Dragons, Letters cut from “The Confessional: A Full and Free Inquiry into the Right, Utility, Edification, and Success of Establishing Systematical Confessions of Faith and Doctrine in Protestant Churches,” holes are burned in paper, 26 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

While artists like Holzer, Ono, O’Grady and Kruger alert our sensibility to the way linguistical phrases affect our social and emotional lives, Meg Hitchcock explores the way that written words influence religion and spirituality. Hitchcock creates awe-inspiring artwork using letters, phrases and mantras, which she cuts out from major religious texts and appropriates in order to reveal a similar thread between the world’s major religious faiths. Hitchcock’s interpretation and appropriation of passages deconstructs the exclusivity it was originally intended to be representative of. She does this by selecting words from the Christian bible and arranging them into a passage from the Koran, or the Torah and vice versa. Hitchcock’s arrangement of spiritual verses from sacred texts exposes the commonality that exists between religions, which are often perceived to be at odds with one another due to social, geographical and political issues. In addition to the conceptual poignancy in Hitchcock’s work, her intricate designs draw a strong visual recollection to ornamental and sacred objects and patterns that are central to all the major faiths.

Linda Herritt, JF Lynch and Howard Schwartzberg utilize the aesthetic properties of letters and words to form insightful connections with regards to the artistic process. Through this endeavor, they assume the role of a narrator who playfully and poignantly engages and confounds viewers.

Linda Herritt, Seafoam Spectra, 2016, Handmade paper and photo transfers; Text lists wall paint color names, 30 x 40 inches. Produced as part of the Workspace Residency, Dieu Donné, New York

Herritt uses written language as an element of art and principal of design, as well as a means of conceptual expression. Herritt’s text-based work builds upon subject matter that ranges from lineups of bands playing shows in Brooklyn, a compendium of traditional Chinese brushstrokes, or a catalog of common side-effects from pain medications (to name a few). She composes these elements as a shorthand, a method of rapid writing by means of abbreviations and symbols, to talk about specific cultural phenomena. The way that Herritt arranges and distorts the form of each letter confounds a simple reading of the text and challenges the way we perceive the combination of image and text. Additionally, the unique juxtaposition of words creates the effect of traditional drawing techniques such as cross hatching and shading.

J.F. Lynch, Beautiful (Full of Beauty), 2017, Courtesy of the artist.

J.F. Lynch also arranges letters and words in a manner that is indicative of language’s dual aesthetic and conceptual possibilities. To J.F. Lynch, words are everywhere. They exist alongside other sensory information as memories of stored information that amplify what we see, and stay with us when we travel. Lynch’s subtle word paintings and drawings play off of Surrealistic biomorphisms as well as the tromp l’oeil text found in contemporary graffiti and Medieval illuminated manuscripts. He combines these decorative lettering constructs through a dramatic value scale that calls to mind the tonality in the work of contemporary artist Robert Longo. Similar to Longo, Lynch uses graphite to ‘sculpt’ his letters to give his paintings and drawings the illusion of being three-dimensional. They appear and disappear within his black-and-white charcoal works. They give a conflicting emotional sensations appearing both beautiful and foreboding. Despite the conflicting feelings, there is an overall playfulness within his typographic expressionism. The letterforms in his work are often jumbled or distorted, blurring the line of legibility and enticing the viewer to try and decipher them. Lynch gives some hints within the titles of his artwork for those painstakingly searching for the message. One example is Beautiful (full of beauty), 2017. In this drawing, Lynch creates a portrait of the word “beautiful” by pulling each letter apart and arranging them throughout the picture plane. His dramatic chiseled treatment of each letter makes them feel like they’ve come into our realm. As word-portraits, Lynch’s primary objective is to establish these words as tangible objects for us to engage with.

Howard Schwartzberg, from “The Muse ic Series,” 1995-96, pen and dirt on paper.

Howard Schwartzberg incorporates specific words, sentences and organic materials such as dirt, wax, fish scales and dust within his drawings. Similar to Lynch and Herrit, the line, shape and placement of the words represent formal elements of art and are used as the focal point for these aesthetic compositions. Schwartzberg’s drawings symbolize the process of making art and give us an introspective view of the thought process he engages with inside his studio. Words are repeated as if re-occurring in thought or rubbed and crossed out as if it were a mistake. Furthermore, the phrases depicted in each drawing suggest a play on words, which enables the viewer to construct their own visual imagery by interpreting and deciphering their multiple meanings.

These previously discussed contemporary artists are several of many visionaries whose work provides varying examples of how viewing text and imagery together can lead to an enjoyable and profound engagement with particular messages, themes, or vocabulary. While some of the work would be challenging for emerging readers and language learners, the aforementioned artists and artworks can help students with decoding, fluency, vocabulary, sentence construction/cohesion, reasoning and background knowledge, working memory and paying attention (being active and observers. See: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

All of the strategies for reading and comprehending text can be supported in creative and unique ways within the educational sphere. In the art classroom, students can start the year by creating fanciful text based artwork. This not only helps assess where they are at artistically, but also what their comprehension skills are. Additionally, it is a great way to learn names and get to know the students in a meaningful way. For inspiration and motivation, students can look at examples of graffiti from the 1980s (see: Style Wars) through the present, as well as illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. After scrutinizing these aesthetic movements, they should compare and contrast the two text-centered art forms, decode symbolic meanings and make inferences about the content. After discussing the properties and analyzing the contents of each art form, students should be prompted to make connections between these works of art and their own lives. They can then create a work of art focusing on the embellishment of their name (nickname, or initials) that is self-aware and cognizant of their relationship to the world around them. This project challenges students to relate what they learned about text based art by employing several different comprehension strategies. It is a fun way to introduce visual vocabulary (the elements of art and principals of design) and strengthen students’ understanding of written language.

Another idea is a unit inspired by the cut-up poetry technique of Lorraine O’Grady, Barbara Kruger’s juxtaposition of words and media imagery and the truisms of Jenny Holzer. This unit might be well served in collaboration with the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum when students are learning about strategies for reading and writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Students should analyze the work of the aforementioned artists, and discuss how they each re-present mass media stereotypes, clichés and contemporary narratives within their artwork. Students should research several different newspaper, magazine and journal articles (appropriate for their reading levels), follow the strategies for reading comprehension, and suss out important information from the publications, which they can use to create an aesthetic response to an issue that holds significance to them.

An additional way of strengthening literacy and critical thinking via visual art is by connecting art projects to literature that students are reading in other classes. Again, such a unit/learning segment can be designed and implemented in coordination with the ELA curriculum. The work of Tim Rollins and K.O.S is a prime example of how contemporary art practices can bolster reading comprehension skills (see: Tim Rollins and Visual Literacy and What we can learn from Tim Rollins (1955-2017) ). Starting in the 1980s, Rollins and his middle-school aged collaborators (who named themselves K.O.S.) started to make work in response to the books they were reading for class. By focusing in on common tropes, themes and important passages, K.O.S. synthesized literary narratives into abstract works of art, replete with sociocultural symbolism.

There is a current traveling exhibition called Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World, which showcases the work of contemporary artists who re-imagined themes from fairy tales. The realized works comment on stereotypical treatments of gender and power dynamics in several traditional fairy tales. This exhibition is emblematic of how developing strong reading comprehension techniques enables us to understand and digest problematic themes in existing literature and expose them in novel perspectives for renewed evaluation.

Students can comprehend, analyze and critique a text they’re reading in class in terms of whether it conveys pertinent and/or problematic issues, as well as the ways it might hold significance to specific contemporary social, political and cultural issues that they are aware of.  Several visual responses can be implemented to exhibit what the students have comprehended from literature. A few of which include: producing graphic novels that are adapted from their assigned reading; re-imagining a story line or dialogue through performance; and creating a mixed-media typographic portrait of a character in relationship to their intersectional identity (ex. using key passages from the book and media sources to form a symbolic image of key character traits of literary figures).

Literature, language and the visual arts are all essential modes of expressive communication and therefore can be creatively synthesized in order to sincerely portray and contextualize the human condition. Understanding text and written language in terms of aesthetics and visual culture is beneficial to professional artists and educators alike. The examples of how visual artists utilize written language and are inspired by literature, provide ample opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration within a pedagogical framework. It would benefit the scholastic community if art departments and literary departments work towards incorporating strategies and habits of mind in each discipline in order to make developing literacy (both visual, oral and written) relevant and engaging for students.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Gersten, R., Fuchs, L. S., Williams, J. P., & Baker, S. (2001). “Teaching reading comprehension strategies to students with learning disabilities: A review of research.” Review of Educational Research, 71, 279–320.

Lee, Andrew M.I. “6 Essential Skills Needed for Reading Comprehension.” Understood. https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/reading-issues/6-essential-skills-needed-for-reading-comprehension

Persse, Jason. “From a Whisper to a Scream: Following Yoko Ono’s Instructions.” Inside/Out. 10 Jul. 2010.

Quinn, Chase. “How Lorraine O’Grady Has Challenged a Segregated Art World.” Hyperallergic. 3 Dec. 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/473547/lorraine-ogrady-rom-me-to-them-to-me-again-scad-museum-of-art/

Tompkins, Gail E. (2011). Literacy in the early grades: A successful start for prek-4 readers (3rd edition), Boston: Pearson. p 37



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