“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” What was William Shakespeare thinking when he wrote these words in Hamlet over four hundred years ago? Words, by their very nature are inherently imbued with meaning. So does it follow that words can have meaning without thought? From across the centuries, Shakespeare speaks to us of the illusive nature of language. Meaning shifts and memory changes depending on the context of the written, and delivery of the spoken, word.

Judith Page's interest in the decontextualization of language is realized in the works gathered together for this exhibition. Each piece has as its departure point the written word. Rather than exploiting their intrinsic didactic possibilities, she instead looks for their transformational qualities on both a verbal and visual level. Because the text chosen has a personal relationship to Page, each piece is imbued with a secret history.

Songs from the Roman Empire, 1990-94 was inspired by the words of the Roman historian Tacitus. While reading his Annals of Imperial Rome, Page was struck by how little had changed over the thousands of years since the history was written. Instead of society learning from history, she discovered the same mistakes are repeated. Her response was to make an installation using 45 record albums, some of which contain quotations by Tacitus which have become small collage sculptures made from remnants of earlier sculptures, found objects and pieces of old tools from her studio. An audio tape with a recording of the artist reading from Tacitus plays on a continuous loop.

By superimposing words and shapes over the record albums, Page has obliterated their original meaning and message. Fragments from her studio and the records are now transformed into remnants of a society. (It was a very short time after the advent of the CD that albums were considered antediluvian.) Like history, the records move in a circular, not linear fashion. It's the real songs of that time, she tells us, and the real songs from now.

The text in Shoot, 1993, is less overt, but nonetheless present. The piece is comprised of two components, larger, gourd-like shapes that read as vessels or heads and smaller, round shapes made of wadded drawings wrapped in wire. The drawings are made on pages ripped from a copy of Jansen's History of Art in Page's possession since college. Figurative, with a hint of sex and whimsy, the drawings were made in response to what was written or depicted on the page. The limited palette of ink-black, sienna and some reds, ingrain the crumpled paper with an earthiness.

This piece resonants on several levels, visual and verbal. Formally it reads like a nineteenth-century garden game, as if the wads had been tossed at the gourds. Or maybe a battle is going on, and the wads have been shot from the neck of the gourds, like a ball from a cannon. There is a fine line between tension and integration among the shapes, as if an intricate sexual dance is being performed.

In concept, the vessel relates to the human figure, and is often used as a metaphor for the female. The balled drawings have an edge to them. They have, after all, been demolished and for those aware of the status of the Jansen book in art history classes across the country, its purposeful destruction is akin to high treason. For decades, Jansen dictated what would be considered the important artists, works of art and movements in art history. It is fairly widespread knowledge that the original Jansen had few women artists in it.

For a process-driven artist like Page, the very act of creation and then destruction defines the piece as much as the final result. It is during production that the initial idea is worked out. Shoot, for instance, evolved in the making. Although the title remained the same,the connotation was much more organic, shifting between notions of a game; to a battle and even with “shoot!” referring to someone's mistake that ended up tossed away on the floor. The viewer sees gourds and tightly wrapped fistfuls of paper; the artist knows their history.

Crush, 1994, has even more of personal history. Somewhat of a selective pack rat, Page has kept all her love letters since grade school. Originally destined for the storage bin, the box containing the letters somehow ended up here when the artist moved to New York. It wasn't long before they were incorporated into a work, the rather weighty ankles and feet of a minimalized figure becoming a visual metaphor for the encumbrance of past history. Once meaningful, text is no longer available to the recipient. For Page, this piece is more general than autobiographical; she asks the question, “do we revere history and learn from it or is it an albatross?”

In related series of abstracted profiles, all Untitled, 1993-94, the circles that came from piercing the love letters with a keyhole saw are used for the eyes. Fragments of words allude to the content; what was once meant for Page's eyes only have become the eyes of her creation. There are many different ways of seeing.

Page loves this notion of superimposing one idea over another. Dope, 1994, is made from a stack of pulpy detective novels the artist reads to blank out from reality, the way others might watch television or take drugs. She found herself saving the books, not for her library but as material. The resulting sculpture is a stack of more than thirty of these novels balanced on one another (Brancusi's Endless Column, but with words?). The gourd/head/vessel precariously resting on top visually connects the piece to Shoot while the pages from Jansen play a highbrow counterpart to the low brow world of the detective novels.

It is not easy to effectively use found objects in sculpture. One of the keys to carrying it off is to incorporate the objects in such a way that their original meaning and history is transcended. In Text/Anti-Text, Judith Page explores the changing nature of history and memory by beginning with materials with which she has a personal relationship and allowing process to dictate final form. It is in the overlay of one meaning with another, or enforcing one structure on another, that she achieves this transformation. Meaning remains in flux somewhere between the maker and viewer. As Napoleon observed, “history is a set of lies agreed upon.”

Sue Scott
New York
February 1994

Sue Scott is an independent writer and curator. She is a frequent contributor to Art News, Art & Antiques and Art Papers.

The James Howe Gallery
Kean University
Union, NJ