BLAH BLAH BLAH. A phrase that can mean anything and nothing. Mel Bochner calls it ‘the black hole of language’. As he explains, “We live in a world that is oversaturated with empty language – small talk, tweets, texts, leet speak, chit-chat, pop-up ads, telephone-answering messages (‘your call is important to us…’), warnings on medicine bottles (‘if you have an erection lasting more than four hours…’). If there is no escaping this linguistic tsunami, the ‘Blah Blah Blah’ paintings subvert it from below.”
Bochner has been described as a paradox: “a leading American old-school conceptualist, a lover of words and ideas and colour and a painter who seems, at times, to hate the stuff.” Although he is considered as a highly influential figure in the development of conceptual art, Bochner shies from the label. “A question I’m often asked is, ‘Why are you painting? Isn’t conceptual art supposed to be anti-painting? Well, yes and no. Yes, if you are a conceptual artist, and no, if, like me, you aren’t.”
Words are the building blocks of Mel Bochner’s art. He uses language as an artistic medium, drawing attention to its physical form and visual presence as much as to its literal meaning. Using Roget’s Thesaurus (“that warehouse of words’), he lines up words and synonyms in a variety of colours depending on the tone, often punctuated with exclamation marks. Each word calls to mind the kind of sound it indicates, but when the work is viewed from afar, the words become abstracted and absorbed into the overall visual impact. The painting turns into a blaze of colour as we are impelled to move from seeing to reading and back again.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘SILENCE!’ (2013), a water-based silkscreen. The word ‘SILENCE!’ is followed by a list of increasingly-irate synonyms – ‘BE QUIET!’, ‘CAN IT!’, ‘COOL IT!’, ‘ZIP IT!’, ‘MUZZLE IT!’, STUFF A SOCK IN IT!’, ‘JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP!’. They all define a word meant to stop all noise, but the literal meaning is subverted as they scream out at us. In contrast to the loudness of the words the colours are soft and subdued, the text receding quietly into the background.
At first glance, Mel Bochner’s work may seem light and easy to glance at and move beyond, but the work is deceptive in its simplicity. Using words and phrases as images, it reflects on the complex relationship between visual representation and language and makes us think beyond simply looking at an image and reading the words. As Bochner put it, “The viewer should enter the idea through a visual or phenomenological experience rather than simply reading it.”