Art & Language: Nobody Spoke at Lisson Gallery

Retrospectives are tricky things—despite the often incomplete, reductive, and forced nature of the form, it is the curatorial genre put into action the most, and the one that most easily conforms to the logic of the museum and the market through its presentation of the individual artist’s career as linear and progressive. Audiences love them, art historians and critics love to complain about them, and the commercial interests of modern and contemporary art demand them. But what happens when a group like Art & Language—the resident challengers to modernism’s emphasis on mastery, individuality, continuity, and inherent meaning—takes on the retrospective form? Can domestication be sidestepped under such constrained museological restrictions?

Art & Language. Installation shot of Drawings From the Winter. 2012-2013. Ink on paper. 41.2 x 29.7 cm each.

Art & Language. Drawings From the Winter, 2012-2013; installation view; ink on paper; 41.2 x 29.7 cm each.

Marketed as a celebration of “forty years since this contingent art group first showed at Lisson Gallery,” the exhibition is not a career retrospective of Art & Language (now consisting of Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden) in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s a critical response to what a retrospective demands (a sense of “development” and progression often attached to technical competencies and notions of artistic maturity) and how “late style” is often assessed and understood (namely, that work at the end of an artist’s life is somehow nostalgic, reflective, and diluted in relation to the artist’s earlier, more potent style).[1] Insightful meditations on the nature of an artist’s oeuvre can be spotted in the various reminders and remainders of past works incorporated into more recent pieces, suggesting that this is an exhibition that wants to take stock of the collaborative practices and archival tendencies that have motivated Art & Language across the years. However, Nobody Spoke is no ordinary contemplative pause; it is a destabilizing, hermetic account of a career that refuses to assimilate into historiographical obedience.

Art & Language. Installation shot of Drawings From the Winter. 2012-2013. Ink on paper. 41.2 x 29.7 cm each.

Art & Language. Sea Ghost II, 2014; acrylic with ink and mixed media on canvas; 176 x 149.5 cm.

The complex archaeology of past and present can be seen most visibly in the series of five Sea Ghosts paintings that hang in the first room of the gallery. Created in 2014 especially for the Lisson show, the works give a poetic nod to the forgotten ghosts of sailors that haunt the dark waters of the sea, trapped forever within their empty vessels in a watery purgatory. To invoke the melancholia of incomplete journeys is, on the one hand, to see the layers of thick painted marks—in fleshy pinks, ochers, blues, and reds that obliterate the signs of other works and motifs from the group’s previous work—as a trapped history or a critique of liberal democracy’s false sublation of art into everyday life. It is a sorrowful post-1968 recognition of the group’s critical persistence as something that can only peek out or haunt through fragmented reminders of a past now covered over. On the other hand, these works revel in a performative kind of incompetence and amateurity that laughs in the face of the soppy, nostalgic history of the avant-garde by relishing in the failure of their unstable works, impossibly difficult texts, and unusable objects. The expressive stabs of undiluted color and fragments of paneled ceiling in Sea Ghosts—recognizable motifs to those who are familiar with Art & Language’s career—thus turn the galleries into an echo chamber of old and new strategies, works, voices, and expressions forcibly juxtaposed into a dialogue that never seems to add up. This is continued in the next room with Nobody Spoke, an installation of seventeen chairs shoddily constructed from ten black-and-white paintings that take up themes and motifs that reproduce other works from the group’s past, thereby extending their archival practice and material history by making new work of the old.

Art & Language. Nobody Spoke. 2013-2014. Installation composing 17 chairs, alogram on canvas over plywood with acrylic and mixed media. 3 chairs: 101.3 x 35.5 x 48.3 cm. 7 chairs: 96.7 x 38 x 44.4 cm. 7 chairs: 92 x 35.5 x 43 cm.

Art & Language. Nobody Spoke, 2013-2014; 17 chairs, alogram on canvas over plywood with acrylic and mixed media; 3 chairs: 101.3 x 35.5 x 48.3 cm; 7 chairs: 96.7 x 38 x 44.4 cm; 7 chairs: 92 x 35.5 x 43 cm.

The tensions enacted between old and new, emptiness and complexity, the meaningful and the meaningless, are something that Art & Language have continued to activate within their work, turning the acts of interpretation and viewing—and the writing of industry-friendly criticism—into frustrating, often confusing experiences. Despite the shoddy assemblage of their works, the basic qualities of their materials, and their insistence on vacancy and chaos, there is an equally pervasive feeling of something being meaningfully attended to even as it is mocked and parodied. Pinning down just exactly what “it” is seems to be where the meaning lies, lodged deep inside a web of jokes and gambits made with the most serious of intentions.

Art & Language have built a career out of the stuff of contradiction since their beginning in the late 1960s, when art worked to release itself from the conventions of representing the real world in order to focus on the ways in which representations present, distribute, and recognize themselves. Thus, Art & Language tend to structure their institutional provocations by materializing the conditions that enable art to accrue meaning by asking not just what a work of art means, but how it means, and where meaning and complicity with the art industry’s meaning-authenticating system might be disconnected or at least displaced.[2] (“Conceptual Art” seems to be the chosen name for this type of work, but I’m not sure the label points to anything interesting or specific anymore.[3]) Carefully meandering through the accommodating forces of the gallery and the museum, Art & Language challenge viewers to transform themselves, to engage, think, resist, try, fail, and then fail better.

[1] This statement can be found in the press release published by the Lisson Gallery for the current exhibition. A PDF of this can be found via a link on the gallery’s website:

[2] For an excellent recent account of Art & Language’s critical practice, see Matthew Jesse Jackson’s lecture for MACBA’s 2013 symposium Radically Uncompleted, Radically Inconclusive: On Art & Language’s Legacy, titled “If You Were Art & Language, Then You’d Be a Fucking Decent Contemporary Artist.” Accessed at:

[3] Instead of aligning Art & Language’s work to a stylistic, categorical understanding of conceptual art where practices tend to circumscribe around productive, existential critiques with investments in the intersection of the specific and the general and “questions of human perception and the cosmos,” Baldwin and Ramsden negotiate their gestures deductively in order to critique the conditions of value and desire that structure institutional mediations of art objects and ideas; see Matthew Jesse Jackson’s review “The Quick and the Dead” in Artforum, November 2009, pp. 218–220. Also, see Charles Harrison’s chapter “A Kind of Context” in his text Essays on Art & Language: Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003, pp.13–21. For an interesting discussion of the ambiguity and vacuity surrounding the term “Conceptual Art” for American artists, see the series of transcripted interviews published in Patricial Norvell’s Recording Conceptual Art: Early Interviews With Barry, Heubler, Kaltenbach, LeWitt, Morris, Oppenheim, Siegelaub, Smithson, and Weiner, eds. Robert Barry, Alexander Alberro, and Patsy Norvell, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.