In November, the Portland Museum of Art acquired a work by Robert Indiana. A large "7" was installed in the museum courtyard that I largely ignored through the winter, running with my head down through the snow and cold. Thinking about the number at all was limited to my friend/coworker Amanda Hawkins gushing about "walking past a Robert Indiana every day on my way to work." While I agreed that was exciting for a smaller city to have a big name artwork so prominently displayed, I had given very little thought to Indiana in my life. I wasn't quite sure why else I should be excited about it. I mentioned my confusion to Joshua Langstaff, who brusquely defined Indiana as "working with typography and stuff."
As you may know, I've been putting some thought toward the metamorphosis of technology into fine art. With photography so comfortably settled in the realm of fine art, the artistic preeminence of Robert Indiana implies that the field of design could take up the mantle of fine art born of utility. Portland's general benevolence towards Indiana's piece exemplifies design's popularity, and between MECA, PhoPa and The Artist Studios I have ample exposure to the ways in which fine artists transmogrify type in their practice. Portland has a multitude of printmakers, and the popularity of the letterpress forms a perfect bridge from the studio to the rusty "7" presiding over the Arts District. One example is Montserrat graduate and L. L. Bean designer Darek Bittner.
Bittner is a member of the Pickwick Independent Press, a printmaking studio in downtown Portland. He experiments with reworking and overlapping alphabetic characters on a letterpress, vestiges of text reducing our language to shapes and patterns. His work points to the superficiality of established forms of communication, language as a font of culture only relevant in the human sphere. To counter this aspect of irrelevance and add a Jungian tinge to the discipline, mazes of "Ls" and lattices of "Vs" point to forms that repeat in our visual communication. Strangely enough, this frame of mind reminds me of my thesis work on Andy Goldsworthy, who works in discoveries about site-specific natural processes and an adherence to forms found in the natural world. He tries to discover the essence of a location and form a monument to its nature.
It's fascinating to see this concept reflected in work so distinct from Goldsworthy's ephemeral earthworks. Bittner looks at type from every perspective, removing it from traditional context to gain a glimpse at its essence. The shapes' loss of communicative ability emphasizes the importance of context to our written language. Text's superficiality as a communication in itself is a delightful result of artistic exploration, but Bittner doesn't stop there. His series titled "Trailmarker," imply a communicative function to the repurposed shapes of the type. After stripping meaning from these characters Bittner gives them the context that allows them to retain a certain significance.
It's in this significance that Bittner and Goldsworthy's work reach their crossroads. Design's dependence on culture to provide a contextual meaning gives an agency to the artist Goldsworthy could never fully achieve. Trailmarkers serve as communication between people about how to navigate an area of the natural world. Goldsworthy's work generally communicates discoveries of how the natural world functions, while Bittner reflects on our strategies of relating to the world through simple symbols. This sort of circular thought is part of what I find so exciting about looking critically at design as an art form. Bittner manipulates text until it returns, reconstructed, to its original purpose, taking the viewer down a trail of thought and spitting them out at the beginning.