Visual Language (Gertrude Stein)

I would like to think that I am making sculptural work the way Gertrude Stein wrote poetry—taking recognizable, concrete things extracting them from the context in which they are meant to be understood, thereby allowing them to be precisely what they are, but then re-contextualizing them in relationship to one another in a new, unexpected way that make’s formal and sensory, if not logical, sense.


We have certain expectations for what they are meant to do. In the same way that Stein could not extract the inherent meaning from the word “buttons” I cannot extract the meaning from the shells of pistachio or soap.

She wasn’t interested in creating a whole new language but more interested in re-presenting us with the English language, perhaps in an even more raw form than we are accustomed to.

“Why was saying nothing so damn hard? The answer returns us to her earlier discovery: the structure of language. Because words are always interconnected by syntax, they can never say nothing. Meaning is contextual and holistic, no word exists alone.

“Any human being putting down words had to make sense out of them.”- Gertrude Stein.  

While this is true can one not make sense out of something that is perhaps, illogical or absurd. What is the value in the work of trying to make sense out of something? Can it strengthen mental muscle?

Is it only affective when it makes sense or, on the contrary, is it most effective when it does not.

“a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the
grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the
magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the”

Conversation with Nash:

N: “I’m just not very familiar with her work. What’s the idea?”

M: “Well I always think about my sculptural assemblage work as a sort of visual language or a way to compose disparate objects in relation to one another so that they’re perhaps no longer sensical in a traditional sense but they still hold their own individual characteristics/stories or “definitions” of sorts. Gertrude Stein wrote poems that attempted to do something similar with language itself. She wrote poems based on this idea that words could be extracted from their original contexts and no longer have the kinds of contingent meaning we are used to them having but instead be abstracted so sound or symbol or something more formal and nonsensical. But the words still carry their own inherit meanings because as long as we know the language we will try to understand the word as a utilitarian object that does the work of being a vessel for that meaning we’ve ascribed to it.

N: That’s a cool idea. So if I understand correctly, an object or material is kind of like a visual morpheme?

Or the work is a visual phrase and each component loses it’s individual meaning.”

M: I had to look up morpheme (A morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in a language. In other words, it is the smallest meaningful unit of a language. The linguistics field of study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology. A morpheme is not identical to a word, and the principal difference between the two is that a morpheme may or may not stand alone, whereas a word, by definition, is freestanding. When a morpheme stands by itself, it is considered as a root because it has a meaning of its own (e.g. the morpheme cat) and when it depends on another morpheme to express an idea, it is an affix because it has a grammatical function (e.g. the –s in cats to indicate that it is plural).[1] Every word comprises one or more morphemes.) which is, in and of itself, a great word. But I think what I am trying to get at is more of the latter.

But maybe not that each component loses its meaning—each component is more itself because the phrase itself looses its meaning.

M: Like a line from one of her poems (just a random one I found just now) says… “ a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the grass alas and the magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas…” So, there are certain elements that make sense and we know and recognize (just as there are objects and materials in my work that are utilitarian and recognizable) but at the same time the statement makes no sense so we are asked to think more about each individual unit as meaningful. But there are loose formal relationships between the units that make the units feel like, despite their nonsensicality, they somehow belong with one another.”