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Alyson Provax’s islands of perception

The artist's letterpress works lean into language's incomplete capacity to describe feelings. Hannah Krafcik reviews "To know what we say we know," on view through June at Well Well Projects.

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swirling letterpress text reading "I keep thinking until I know"
Image detail, Untitled (I keep thinking I’ll know / is that how everyone feels), Letterpress on Hahnemühle Copperplate warm white. 9×16″ 2023; photo by Mario Gallucci

Alyson Provax’s artist statement for her exhibition To know what we say we know at Well Well Projects reads a bit like a journal entry – a mashup of quotes by writers mixed with her personal reflections. “Words cannot hold all of a feeling,” she asserts; “we’re always on the island of momentary perception.”

I found myself on this experiential precipice, this emotional and somatic “island,” as I took in Provax’s new series of letterpress pieces. Many featured framed sheets of paper with lines of text that repeated and overlapped, flirting with obfuscation such that I had to shift my body in order to read. In the process of reading, meaning became abstracted and transmuted depending on how text was obscured or revealed. I puzzled my way through each work, engaging in the pleasure of pattern recognition and allowing its effects to crystalize and be destabilized again. 

The first piece I encountered contained the phrase “MYSELF I DON’T KNOW” fanning outward, wrapping inward. The conjunction “if” was repeated at the upper apex of the curved type. Later, upon consulting the exhibition works list, I learned that the title of this piece was Untitled (if I’m honest with myself I don’t know), presumably the full text that I could not make out. In this initial encounter, I quickly learned Provax’s approach: She seemed to be hooking me with words I could read and then sending me into a vortex of unreadable text. This unsettled the concrete facade of language with oblique effect.

In her artist statement, Provax quotes American writer Maggie Nelson in her book On Freedom, stating, “Words and images can and do have somatic effects on us.” In her exhibition, Provax illustrated how text can be used to generate experiential imagery that collapses the meaning of words. 

blue text letterpress work
Untitled (if I’m honest with myself I don’t know), Letterpress on Hahnemühle Copperplate warm white, 6.5×9.5″ 2023; photo by Mario Gallucci

In another work, lines of text warp into arches where Provax twisted the paper methodically as she typed, creating the architecture of abstracted fortune cookies. On the far left side I read, “WHY DO I ALWAYS” followed by an array of chaotic letters that produced sensations of mental confusion, the sound of a skipping album, as I tried to read on. Finally, at the bottom right of the spiraling text, I found the rest of this inconspicuous message: “WHY DO I ALWAYS…FEEL THIS WAY.” It was as if Provax’s sentiments had changed in the process of being repeated, causing her words to double-back on themselves as if she was becoming tongue tied. What was she really trying to say?

This work was framed with a companion, another piece with lighter type. Its repeated lines looked a bit like spinning leaves, and I could read them easier: “I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SAYING,” which read like an ironic call back to the aforementioned text. 

diptych work with swirling letterpress text in blue ink
Untitled (why do I always feel this way / I don’t know what you’re saying), Letterpress on Hahnemühle Copperplate warm white. 9×16.5″ 2023; photo by Mario Gallucci

Moving on, I glimpsed a work that contained the words “LIKE EVERYTHING” repeated over and over with the space narrowing in between each line. Eventually the text blended together so that I read, in my mind’s eye, “LIKE EVERTTTTTHHHHH” — too much “everything” at once! I interpreted this as the familiar feeling of overwhelm, which waxes and wanes depending on what I can ascertain as legible. Encountering these pieces, I realized, meant moving in and out of states of disorientation.

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Untitled (I don’t know whether or not it happened) featured lines of bronze type that overlapped in a bulging center and then tightened out into seven radiating points. The whole composition presented a star shape made with grooves of letters imprinted over letters — curls on curls like macaroni salad.

“It’s exciting to remember that words do have the ability to cause a feeling that can’t be put back into words,” wrote Provax in her artist statement. Here, I found myself reminded that text has the capacity to enter the ineffable realm of performativity, enacting something beyond what is legible, a power that is leveled through delivery. 

In the far corner of Well Well Projects, I notice two works unlike the rest. My attempts to describe the first of these underscored how challenging it often feels to write about artwork in the linear fashion, for linearity limits the breadth of what is possible within description (Provax works tease me in this way!). In any case, I have done my best here: 

On the wall to the left hung a work made of folds in paper, with words imprinted both internally and externally to create a set of phrases, “ӘИIИƎԳԳAH ƧIHT ƧI ƎЯƎH I MA.” Even though these words appear in a mirror image, I could read them quickly: “AM I HERE IS THIS HAPPENING.” 

Image detail, Untitled (am I here is this happening), Letterpress on Gampi 12.5×10 2024; photo by Mario Gallucci

Beside this work hung another work. I glimpsed a small phrase printed on the top sheet of what looked like a floating manuscript. The type read, “I can’t tell you” – another callback. 

Perhaps, that last sentiment summarized the of the exhibition: even in writing, in saying, so much remains unwritten, unsaid. Provax’s work raises fundamental questions about the limits of language: What happens when we try to make something explicit? What happens when, in giving language to a feeling, a thought, a sensation, or a supposition, its impact becomes too much to wield, to “put back into words”? How do we recognize the most explicit of messages in a mess of illegible symbols? And how does our felt sense, our capacity to interpret, transcend the confines of type and reach into our very bodyminds? These conundrums, and many more, make Provax’s To know what we say we know a challenging show worth wrestling with.

gallery view with framed letterpress works on white walls
installation view of Alyson Provax’s “To know what we say we know”; photo by Mario Gallucci

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Alyson Provax’s To know what we say we know is on view at Well Well Projects June 1-30, 2024. The gallery is at 8371 N. Interstate Ave #1 and is open Saturdays and Sundays, noon-5 p.m.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Hannah Krafcik (they/them) is a Portland-based interdisciplinary neuroqueer artist and writer whose work emerges from ongoing reflections on social patterning and censorship, (over)stimulation, perseveration, and intuition. Their practices span dance, writing, new media, and sound design. Hannah continues to be influenced by their collaboration with artistic partner Emily Jones.
Photo credit: Jo Silver
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2 Responses

  1. For words that evoke art and art as a whole that employs words view the 1960-70s seriagraphs and prints of sister Mary Corita Kent

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