Alternative Focus #12: ZEITGEIST Ekphrasis: Texts & Images


This text is an attempt to (re)present a four-way “discussion” initiated by the exhibition “preconceptual: ZEITGEIST IV,” which was on view March 3 to April 2 of this year at Hillyer Art Space near Dupont Circle, as the issues it raised seem worthy of ongoing consideration. There are (both explicitly and implicitly) four participants in this interchange about those ideas because that show was curated by three artists—Sondra Arkin, Tom Drymon and Ellyn Weiss—so our common effort here means that not ONLY The Critic Sees, as Jasper Johns’ infamously satirical sculpture has it (where mouths replace eyes in a pair of spectacles). Those creators of it, in arranging and employing the creations of other artists to make a statement, then very generously allowed me to “jump into the fray” too.

Before beginning, it seems essential to place this virtual “discussion” in several contexts, the first being literally definitional: Zeitgeist means in German “the spirit of the times,” as its accompanying catalog/brochure accurately informs a viewer; and this installment is subtitled “preconceptual” for what we might suggest are a pair (maybe a triad) of reasons. One refers back to the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 70s, perhaps ironically expressing the possibility we are moving backwards in cultural-developmental time (given this “political moment”); another implication is we approach works of art laden with many “preconceptions” (some of these fostered by pretentious wall-texts, labels, and jargon-ridden discourses).

Justyne Fischer, "Great Things", 2017, hand-colored woodcut on voile (ZG IV)

But finally, I think, this term “preconceptual” as used here projects there is some way we might approach (especially Contemporary) art in mentally pre-conceptual fashion: “directly” in a manner somehow not influenced by non-visual ideas about them or verbally-articulated “concepts.” This understanding is supported in the exhibition’s catalog by a mandala-like diagram titled “What Stands Between?”: where a singular “object” is located in its center, “audience” is run repeatedly around its perimeter, and mediating forces (cf. creator, history, facts, institutions, press) intervene. In other words, a visualization of how an “artworld” works. Yet this is not an “objective” presentation of these structures, but rather a critical one.

In practical terms, this endeavor was carried out by its curators in: choosing artists to include; deciding upon “categories” or genres they informed these artists they would be presented under (“landscape,” “process,” “appropriation,” “inner landscape,” “identity,” “abstraction,” “social justice,” “figurative,” “minimal”); then writing intentionally abstruse wall-texts to accompany them (neither artists nor viewers being aware of this in advance). Their primary point being, when one is told about this afterwards: that although those monikers may be valid points of Contemporary art commentary’s departure, not only has such discourse become overly important unto itself but may even pretentiously distract us from seeing the art in question (since freighted with interpretational “preconceptions”) ourselves.


Given such a context in which overly sophistic prose “invading” art’s presentation is being critiqued, why do we nonetheless need the word ekphrasis? Because it is in essence what we are talking about or engaged in debating here; and should it sound esoteric it is not, but rather one of the first and most crucial terms one learns in studying academic Art History. An ancient Greek word referring to the evocation of visual images by means of verbal texts, specifically originating in the conjuring of such “pictures” which at the time did not still exist or even never had except within literature, it was used (for example) to name what was taking place when cast images on Achilles’ mythological shield were “recreated” using words.

While in present dictionaries ekphrasis is usually defined as any text describing an image, that it originated as a term meaning pictures which ONLY EXISTED in texts seems important. (Perhaps in a sense this makes grasping the essential nature of verbal expression in relation to pictures or artworks possible; and even raises the issue of whether there is any kind of thinking about them which can be completely non-verbal?) In any case, that undertaking beginning in antiquity has in a Post-Postmodern period developed into a major field of study unto itself: the relation between text and image. Courses are taught about it, degrees granted in it, a periodical is devoted to it; and academic careers are built upon its dialectic.

To cite a recent definitional contribution to that literature, John A. Bateman just published an influential textbook titled Text and Image: A Critical Introduction to the Visual/Verbal Divide with Routledge (read: cutting-edge intellectual Leftism); while the initial intellectual champion of this realm of study was/is W.J.T. Mitchell (authorial admission: with whom I studied at The University of Chicago), whose Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology of 1986 is a seminal classic in this area. One important exhibition was organized by New York’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, “Conversations: Text and Image” in 2004; and certain fields, such as the study of Medieval manuscripts, virtually necessitate confronting this issue.

In other words, there is no way to “escape” the reality that this show and our discussion—as well as the artist/curators’ concerns which gave rise to it—are embedded from the start in an already-ongoing discourse. The discipline I have worked in for 40 years could not exist without it, but it is also true that especially museum/gallery and art critical work (with their public interfaces) center on this verbal/visual inter-relationship; and as all fields have become more specialized or increasingly hermetic in their investigations, ours are certainly no exception. In his review, Paul Jenkins quoted Tom Wolfe’s 1975 book The Painted Word: “frankly, these days[,] without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.”[i] The interpretational necessity posed by current art’s opacity can also not be ignored.

Laurel Lukaszewski, "Resist", 2017, black stoneware (ZG IV)

Yet even Jenkin’s fellow Post critic Phillip Kennicott appears to have had it with such “preconceptual” mumbo-jumbo wordworks, writing after his encounter with the Hirshhorn Museum’s exceedingly popular Yayoi Kusama exhibition’s textual accompaniment: “An essay in the catalogue, riddled with artsy junk prose, suggests that this [Kusama’s obsessively repetitious “Infinity Mirror Rooms” and other installations] is all about contemporary systems theories, cybernetics, and the breaking down of binary oppositions ‘between internal and external, tangible and ephemeral.’ It’s not that it’s wrong to intellectualize Kusama’s work; but it is very wrong indeed… in a way that annihilates Kusama herself… Or as she puts it [acknowledging the fact of her mental illness and its importance to her creative existence]: ‘I am trapped in my life, yet I cannot escape from death.’”[ii] In other words, the artist—who lives in a psychiatric institution in Japan, across the street from her studio—admits the main point is her work provides a life-saving outlet.

While none of that “verbal obfuscation” evidently prevented 160,000 visitors from waiting in long lines to see the Hirshhorn’s show since its opening in February (it closed as this article began to be written), one might still look askance at Kusama having titled its final interactive work The Obliteration Room: this existential clue (did you hear her, audience?) apparently not keeping enthusiastic participants from sticking 750,000 multicolored dots on a wall (which did look amazing).[iii] In sum, our “preconceptual: ZEITGEIST IV” artist/curators are here delving into one of the oldest and most central inter-relationships existing in human expression, and they are definitely not alone in questioning such recent text-driven trends.


Before engaging with these three curators’ specific motivations—as expressed in their statements, and the experiences leading to the conception of “ZEITGEIST IV”—it makes sense to place this exhibition in relation to the triad of shows preceding it in this series (or in other words, to historicize it, since each of those other installments were also generated as commentaries on “the spirit of their times”). The first, at the now-defunct Nevin Kelly Gallery in 2008, was titled “Under Surveillance” and concerned itself with the fact that “personal privacy” has been eroded by “all of the ways we are watched, listened to, recorded, categorized and observed,” as its brochure states. It seems significant they were not alone in that concern then, as others tread similar thematic terrain.


Ruth Trevarrow, "Bugged," eight pieces, 2008, enamel glaze on ceramic plates: here Cockroaches (ZG I)

For that phenomenon had also been the topic of previous, contemporary and subsequent exhibitions, including: a large-scale show at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany organized by Thomas Y. Levin of Princeton University titled “Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother” (whose catalogue was published in English by MIT Press in 2002); another exhibition accompanied by a conference that took place in Bracknell, England that same year as “ZEITGEIST I” (2008) called “Conspiracy Dwellings: Symposium on Surveillance in Contemporary Art;” and coincidentally it was also the subject of the first “Alternative Focus” article in this series written for galleries magazine’s website by the present author, a review of the “Under Surveillance” show at the late Norman Parish’s gallery in Georgetown’s Canal Square, in the Fall of 2010.

The lattermost was a collaboration by artists Harriet Lesser and Cleve Overton consisting of 13 small-scale 3D installations; and my commentary on it was admittedly written (just so these “ZEITGEIST I” curators do not feel alone in not being aware of not being alone in their preoccupations) without my knowing of their show as an immediate precedent. While this surveillance topic’s disturbing, negative aspects were indeed referenced by some of Lesser and Overton’s works’ titles (such as Guantanamo, Auschwitz, Gulag and Gaza), I must confess to also seeing another more structural art-referential level of meaning in that exhibition then. As indicated by our “Alternative Focus” title, it was to provide a jumping-off point for our “texts about images” series still being written into now.

If I may quote my remarks, as they seem relevant in suggesting how a “political” thematic can often be simultaneously interpreted as being “about” processes taking place within an artistic sphere as well: “This is also true because the structures in this exhibition offer a metaphor for the experience of looking at art, as well as watching those who are looking at it (as critical commentary always does), viewing both as potentially subversive ‘voyeuristic’ activities… as Overton put it himself in a recent interview: ‘I guess I am a willing participant in the surveillance process.’”[iv] This is to say that we (as viewers, artists and/or critics) might also be engaging in “surveillance” as opposed to being solely its ‘victims”; in looking—at art, an audience or social ills—we have power “watching” others, too. It seems important to emphasize this reciprocity of that inter-relation here.

Anna U. Davis, "US Health Care", 2009, paper & acrylic on canvas, 32” square (ZGII)

The sequel, “ZEITGEIST II,” presented at the Nevin Kelly Gallery in 2009 and conceived in the wake of Barack Obama’s election as well as “the stock market meltdown, and the daily body count of bank failures,” posed its raison d’etre with the broad-reaching subtitle “What’s Important Now?”. That show included “an extraordinary range of imagery, media and concern[s], each [piece] an entirely individual response to the question”: ranging from the “very personal” through “the universal” to those “more political in the traditional sense… exhibiting a mixture of hope and doubt,” as the accompanying brochure puts it. Having not personally seen those preceding shows, I have chosen one work from each of them to suggest their orientation: here, Anna Davis’ representation of an issue that still remains timely.

Finally, and at a point in this text where readers may be asking themselves the same question, came “ZEITGEIST III: Too Much Information?,” at the District of Columbia Arts Center in 2012. It presented artistic responses to the ever-present flow of data the individual is put in a position to deal with or deflect, mapping a beginning awareness of that phenomenon’s potential down-sides for creativity. Again, a catalog explained: “The question mark suggests our ambivalence and our separate viewpoints about this subject; since we are alternately fascinated, troubled, overwhelmed and exhilarated by the increasing streams of information coming to us non-stop, from an ever-growing array of devices and directions.” In the following dialogue, Weiss was more negative than Arkin about that’s impact.

Pat Goslee, "Upon Learning that Multi-Tasking is not Neurologically Possible", 2012, acrylic & latex on canvas (ZG III)


We can now switch gears back into a 2017 present tense, for better or worse, and reflect upon a “dialogue” which took place following my attending the opening of “ZEITGEIST IV” (along with what seemed like thousands of other people in the rather small Hillyer Art Space). After I had nonetheless waded into the masses, carefully positioning myself to be able to look at each of the 18 art objects and attentively try to absorb the juxtaposed wall texts, Sondra Arkin came up to me and suggested we talk; since I could not hear her in the conversational din, I said as much and she indicated we could go into “the Hive” to do so. Since I had not yet gotten that far, I had no idea that was the title of Elsabe Johnson Dixon’s contribution to the exhibition: only aware if it was going to be necessary for us to be somehow dealing with bees, this was all going to be beyond me.

But we took up our conversation subsequently via email; here is one indicative excerpt from that (with the exchange’s order reversed so it makes more sense).

Sondra: “Ellyn [Weiss] and I dreamt this up three years ago at the last Whitney Biennial, when we found there was way more reading than art-looking going on and a lot of it seemed to be unnecessary context for the immediate viewing… And we hoped that we could put enough context around the concept that folks would ‘get it’ AND think about this idea of Who Tells The Story in the context of the current general zeitgeist, where post-truth, partial truth and alternate facts really challenge whatever authority is talking through whatever media they use.”

This Critic: “But since as a ‘social art historian’ my focus in shedding light on a potential viewer’s experience of an artwork, whether in a wall text or an article written about it or them, is rather different than what you were parodying in the schema you had set up (with the whole show functioning in a sense as a ‘work’ in itself, as good ones tend to), I felt somewhat taken aback. It in particular had the effect of having been ‘taken for a ride’ at one’s own expense.”[v]

In other words, while I (and doubtless other historian/critics of Contemporary art) certainly agree with these collaborators’ main point, as a professional who has chosen a specific approach partly in response to such issues, I was defending it.

Sondra: “Your remarks didn’t offend in any way—actually I think they were very much on the mark. A number of audience members expressed to us that they experienced a wide range of responses to the show… and even some of the artists weren’t completely on board with what they were doing even though we shared the proposal with them from the start… I have expressed many of your same observations myself over the course of the project… because I really worried about how many people within the system we could offend. Generally I am a believer in the More Data theory, and I like the experiential options…”

This Critic (order of exchange again reversed here): “That is, as a viewer trying to gain some insight by looking at the pieces in conjunction with their wall texts, without necessarily having gotten the ‘larger picture’ of what was being said, or rather demonstrated. I mean, there ARE texts—including useful information about the artist, a work’s generating context or place within their oeuvre, ideas that have been suggested about it already and indications of where it ‘comes from’ in an art historical sense—which might potentially enrich someone’s experience of it, prompt ideas on their own parts… less is not always more…”[vi]

So evidently “ZEITGEIST IV”’s curators and I were not so far from being on the same page as confronting their exhibition itself might have initially indicated. But I would like (in closing this “dialogic” section) to re-state my previous invitation and make what may seem like an obvious but I think nevertheless-crucial assertion. First, I and this publication’s Editor Reid Baron have invited Sondra as well as her fellow curators Ellyn Weiss and Tom Drymon to respond to this text or extend the discussion they initiated before or after it is posted online, in any way they feel appropriate. And second, at the risk of mouthing truisms: it seems important to emphasize my own position—like that of the methodological approach my art historical and critical work if-only-partly locates itself within—with respect to the premise underlying this “spirit of the times” serial quartet of exhibitions overall.

Honesty thus necessitates saying I personally believe ALL works of art (and not just visual ones, nor just those included in these shows) are each products of and ineluctably embedded in their socio-cultural, economic, ideological and political eras. Even the supposedly-opposed understanding that visual culture inhabits an untouchable “other” realm somehow located outside of its generating context, which I contradictorily acknowledge from my personal experience as well as that of others operating in it to be equally “true,” is the result of a specific extended historical moment. It is that of Modernism, conceived of in its broadest sense; and I suspect these two positions—seeing art as concretely time-bound, and/or as existing somehow on another level than the everyday—might be here reconciled by slightly shifting these curators’ translation of the word Zeitgeist.

For in German, actually Geist can or does also mean “soul” (as well as “spirit”): so the umbrella title of these four shows thematically mapping game-changing points in recent historical time (the Zeit part of this compound word) could take on a bit more metaphysical tone. Hence, as a translator by trade, I would argue “soul of the times” better encompasses BOTH the critical-historical-commentary aspect of these exhibitions, and this most recent “pre/conceptual” installment’s advocacy of art objects’ inherent independence from textual interpretation. I can only hope to have “deconstructed” rather than simply added to that problem here. The latter stance corresponds to what I have just characterized as an unmediated-encounter-between-viewer-and-artwork conception which would be taking place on a “higher level” than its real-world context. This is to play devil’s advocate, intentionally exaggerating the opposition between that (their implicit “ideal”) and the historicizing, of-the-moment nature of this series’ larger project.


In conclusion, I would draw the reader’s attention back to an observation made in this article’s first paragraph, which in itself seems obvious: “[The] creators of it [this “ZEITGEIST IV” show], in arranging and employing the creations of other artists to make a statement…”; and then a bit later on, quoting from one of my own emails to Sondra Arkin: “…with the whole show functioning in a sense as a ‘work’ in itself, as good ones tend to…” (in parentheses in its source). For my point here is this exhibition may, in making use of other artists’ works as well as to some extent manipulating their viewers, to the end of making indeed-conceptual (even text-based) critical assertions, might arguably be in a sense participating in the phenomenon they wish to critique.[vii] That is, despite their validly intending to “reveal” how verbal commentary can distort understanding of visual art in excessively “speaking for,” thereby blocking a more authentic “direct” experience of it: is it possible they are “subjugating” images to texts themselves?

In other words, the artworks included in this show are being explicitly employed to make a point about an art audience’s “preconceptions” (as fostered by their accompanying and potentially overweening textual interpretations), as well as thereby implicitly making us aware of how much “who is speaking” has the power to determine how we are supposed to think about what objects “mean.” Yet at the same time, the way in which “ZEITGEIST IV” was constructed as a curatorial project—using curator/artists’ verbal catalog “statements,” in addition to their having composed the intentionally parodical wall-texts accompanying works by artists they chose to “illustrate” (as it were) their conceptual points by skewing how viewers would perceive them—might it seems in some ways be enacting that very same maneuver, albeit in a self-conscious way. This would of course not invalidate their arguments; perhaps their also falling prey proves the point.

Julia Bernard, June 2017

(This article incorporates alterations requested by galleries magazine’s Editor.)

Excerpts from three curators’ statements printed in this show’s accompanying catalog/brochure can assist in conveying their agendas, which seems especially important given they have somewhat different takes.

Ellyn Weiss: “We began to notice that many of the art world’s most distinguished exhibitions today seem more focused on the artists’ ‘practice’ and what the art is ‘about’ than on the artwork itself… Moreover, the third-party interpreter distances the work from the audience and cements the role of curator/mediator as a necessary intermediary and interpreter. The parallels in the world beyond art are everywhere and can perhaps best be seen in the rise of the commentariat—people who make a living telling us what we should believe about everything… we take this tendency to its logical conclusion—a purposeful disconnect between the creative and the interpretive functions.” Sondra Arkin: “What comes first? The thing or the idea of the thing? Who owns the experience? The creator? The pundit? The audience?… This project comes from a long tradition of Institutional Critique. We aren’t implying that the institutions willfully mislead the audience, but in a time when we are expected to bring our own thinking and to verify and authenticate, we are feeling that the expanding array of audience engagement tools might distance us from the actual object.” Tom Drymon: “The over-riding zeitgeist for me is the necessity of the artist-citizen to be fully awake and to understand and acknowledge that many institutions we have taken for granted only serve the interests of the privileged few—and will use our output and energy for that audience… Over the last few years, we have been witness to the gradual erosion of the institutions that have propped up our practices and lifestyles—museums, universities, the press—due to corporatization and politicization of these institutions… How does it feel to be in an environment designed to willfully mislead? How does it feel to be discarded? How can you help remove the walls that surround and keep us uninformed, fearful, divided? Now is a clarion call for artists. Our best work is ahead.” (all quoted from preconceptual: ZEITGEIST IV, Hillyer Art Space, Washington DC, March 3 – April 2, 2017; 4-6)

[i] Mark Jenkins, “In the Galleries: ZEITGEIST IV,” The Washington Post, Sun. 26 March 2017, E3.

[ii] Phillip Kennicott, “The Elephant in the Mirrored Room: ‘Yayoi Kusama’ Curators Miss the Opportunity to be as Courageously Honest about Mental Illness as the Artist is,” The Washington Post, Fri. 17 Feb. 2017, quote C2.

[iii] Peggy McGlone, “Infinity and Beyond: After all the Buzz and Record-Breaking Crowds, ‘Kusama’ Departs Hirshhorn,” The Washington Post, Tues. 15 May 2017, C1 and 3.

[iv] Julia Bernard, “Parish Gallery’s ‘Under Surveillance’,” Alternative Focus series #1, galleries magazine website (, Sept. 2010 (back articles are archived there)

[v] From the author’s email dated 9 March 2017; and Sondra Arkin’s of 14 March 2017 in response.

[vi] Same dates for Sondra’s and my emails as above; excerpts used here also from that exchange.

[vii] A current, similarly artist-curated exhibition (raising perhaps some similar issues?) is the well-known Glenn Ligon’s “Blue Black,” at The Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, which opened on 9 June 2017: see Hilarie M. Shields, “Speaking Through Colors: Glenn Ligon is using Black and Blue to begin a Dialogue,” The New York Times, Sun. 4 June 2017, “Arts & Leisure,” 24. That museum’s Director Clara Starke noted: “As an artist, there’s a liberty to curate in a different way’ [as she put it] she would have felt compelled as a curator to be more explicitly historical in her reasoning.” (quote from same page)














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