Painting at the Periphery of Language

Mary Lum is a collagist and flaneuse who explores streets and archives. The poet Charles Baudelaire, who coined the “flaneur,” considered it a male designation. Lum upends that perception, as well as our desire for language to be stable and meaning to be fixed. 

As I was looking at “Some Thing” (2024), I felt suspended between comprehension and incomprehension. Walking the tightrope between these two poles of language, and its capacity to make meaning, Lum explores the periphery of understanding. By combining and transforming fragments of words, geometric forms, and pictorial fragments into acrylic paint on large sheets of paper, and incorporating asemic writing, she extends the investigations of Dada poets and artists, who broke language down to clusters of sounds, severing the link between signifier and signified.  

“Some Thing” is comprised of a horizontal chevron pattern in 10 rows, each with a repeated sequence of three colors. It is as if we are looking at the folds of an accordion pressing against the picture plane. Near the top, we can discern the word “SOME” superimposed in white over the colored planes; near the bottom, we see — or do we? — part of the word “THING.” But which part of the letters are we seeing?

“Some Thing” might be the simplest composition in Temporary Arrangements, Lum’s exhibition of 15 paintings and three collages at Yancey Richardson, yet the artist’s exploration of levels of comprehension slowed down my looking and made me examine the fragments of letters. By calling attention to the letters themselves, she pushes back against the commonplace capitalist experience in which reading signage is a form of consumption.

Lum is interested in the deeply rooted human desire to make meaning out of everything, while recognizing that language as a purveyor of meaning and understanding is likely a failed project — and a slippery phenomenon. That slipperiness, in combination with her use of geometric forms and pictorial fragments, raises the question: What are we looking at? 

In “L’Observatoire” (2024), Lum depicts what looks like an abstracted pinball machine out of different planes of red, burnt orange, and khaki. A salmon-colored rectangular plane floating near the top seems to cover up some letters. It’s tempting to know what is hidden, but we can never find out. That tension between desire and frustration recurs in her work. 

Among rows of partly legible and illegible black letters on a white ground in “L’Observatoire,” viewers can read “Forum vertigo” and “L’Observatoire des Passions” (The observatory of passions), the latter mirrored by a row of inverted letters. Once we make out the words, we may ask: What is an observatory of passions? Is it a sacred space or possibly a movie theater? The phrase withstands the desire to know what it means. 

On the front of the box is a cropped word that we can read as either “permanence” or “impermanence,” pulling us once again into a place where disclosure remains impossible. What are we to make of a small image of a ladder set inside a frame on the top left of the picture plane? Is it a sign of aspiration? What awaits the climber? 

Lum underscores the porous and unstable border between comprehension and incomprehension by painting geometric structures that hover between familiarity and unfamiliarity. Like the language fragments, these forms are unable to fully articulate their identity and become something we can name. In a world where we are impelled to name and categorize everything, often to advance some agenda, be it marketing or authoritarianism, Lum reminds us of the inadequacies of language. In this, I see her work as a philosophical comment on semiotics. However, in contrast to the semiotics theory of Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco, which focuses on meaning, Lum considers the likelihood that meaning will continually elude us, but that its absence should not prevent us from seeking it out. 

Mary Lum: Temporary Arrangements continues at Yancey Richardson Gallery (525 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 18. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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