Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

Disintegrating language: Will Rawls’ ‘Amphigory’

Review: Rawls' screen-prints at Adams and Ollman Gallery are like a tug-of-war between dance and writing.

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Will Rawls, “Amphigory [The Thing About Life],” 2022. Oil-based ink on paper; each 30h x 40w in / 76.20h x 101.60 cm; installed: 91h x 164w in / 231h x 416.56w cm 2 + 2 AP, varied edition.

Will Rawls’ prints are like the imprint of a boot that has gotten caught in the sticky mud of time; a mottled transgenerational history so eroded by unspeakable acts and silences that narrative has disintegrated into single words, isolated letters, utterances. Amphigory, a solo exhibition at Adams and Ollman Gallery, presents a newly made suite of forty screen prints. Hung from low to high with words stretching across the architectural gaps, they ask to be read with the body, and not only the eye. Up close, they invite the viewer to become lost in a world of black ink, which veers from architectural and digitized abstraction to places where the ink breathes through the paper as lightly as fog. The ink is dragged across surfaces, creating landscapes of a pixelated architecture, and slowly spelling out letters in the process.

While these framed screen-prints present themselves as visual art, their presence is, at the same time, a tug-of-war between dance and writing. They seem to materially manifest how a gesture might become a word through a series of transpositions and slippages or vice-versa, capturing a mid-point where the form of a letter or a cluster of letters has taken shape: “T” “HE” “TH” “I” “NG” “AB”. Yet even these letters elude easy legibility, gliding instead on the slipperiness of language itself, and the fluidity of the image, which the printing process has broken down into near abstraction. In the accompanying photographs of these works, the camera lens has inevitably produced a higher state of contrast than the human eye. In person, their legibility only reveals itself after much looking.

Will Rawls, “Amphigory [The Thing About Life],” 2022, detail.

In conversation with Rawls at the exhibition opening, the artist described the physical processes of screen-printing as though it were a dance. A performance in which black ink is pressed through a screen the way a body might be pressed to another porous surface. A dance in which resistance and flow are in dialogue with one another, producing an outcome where their presence is made manifest in gaps and presences. Rawls has done things with screen printing that should not be possible. He has made screen-printing break its own rules, of legibility, of smoothness, of producing a fixed presence. Collaborating closely with artist and master printer Thomas Wojak at the The W.O.R.K.S. studio in Vallejo, California, Rawls knew what he wanted the ink to do. He has long been interested in glitches as a space of possibility, as evidenced in previous performance works like Uncle Rebus (2018), where the audience gets to watch sentences come together and then fall apart, and I make me [sic] (2022), which reconstitutes former performances and autobiographic anecdotes as an alphabetized yet jarring lexicon.

The screen-printed glitch is often associated with Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster Series (1962-64), in which the casual repetition and processual obliteration of a tragic newspaper image implies the violence underpinning the American social fabric. There are resonances of this systemic violence in Rawls’s processes of repetition and erasure, compounded by the contents of some of the spelled out words, with phrases like “You can’t escape alive”, that are evocative of several overlapping worlds – of gaming culture, of incarceration, and the precarious reality of Black life, which is so riddled with death (of the young) that scholar Christina Sharpe has referred to being Black as a permanent state of living “in the wake”.

Will Rawls, “Amphigory [Is That You],” 2022. Oil-based ink on paper; each 30h x 40w in / 76.20h x 101.60 cm; installed: 91h x 174w in / 231h x 441.96w cm 2 + 2 AP, varied edition.

Rawls’s prints rake (Black) history from the standpoint of the contemporary digitized world. Their font, designed by the artist, recalls early MS-DOS computer graphics, which were made of sets of bitmap images. His images recall the clunky presence and eventual degradation of large square pixels and their accompanying cursors, evoking the trajectory from an idealistic technological past to a present moment in which the systemic subjugation of the data disenfranchised is rapidly expanding, and entrenching existing racial disparities. In a small corner room of the gallery, a suite of prints is surrounded by a lone sculptural figure, a 3-D printed body, that seems to have emerged from this digital reality. This avatar is at once thrusting its body forward and leaning backwards, as if caught in ambivalence about the act of progression. Hovering between anonymity and pathos, its presence seems a stand-in for the performing body and a reminder that human physicality and technology are increasingly interchangeable. The accompanying prints read “Woops! Game Over.”

Will Rawls, “Amphigory [U Can’t escape Alive],” 2022. Oil-based ink on paper; each 30h x 40w in / 76.20h x 101.60 cm; installed: 91h x 240w in / 231h x 609.60w cm 2 + 2 AP, varied edition.

Rosemarie Waldrop once explained that in the German language “dichten” means to write poetry, but it also means ‘”to make dense”. Rawls’ prints are dense in their viscous materiality, and in how, like poetry, they play with polysemy. Sketching out letters, they playfully reveal possible meanings, which unfold live in the viewer’s presence. In doing so, they echo Rawls’s notable collaboration with poet Claudia Rankine, the performance On What Remains (2017), which melted words into dance. In a related discussion, Rawls commented, “I like to watch things fall apart, disintegrate things, and see space between things so that minds can float around”. Amphigory invites viewers to enter this process of disintegration and moving around in the gaps of language to find new possibilities for inhabitance of what has not yet and can never fully be spoken.

Will Rawls, “Amphigory [Woops! Game Over]“, 2022. Oil-based ink on paper; each: 30h x 40w in / 76.20h x 101.60 cm; installed: 91h x 186w in / 231h x 472.44w cm, 2 + 2 AP, varied edition.

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  • Will Rawls: Amphigory opened October 29 and continues through December 3, 2022, Adams and Ollman, 418 N.W. Eighth Avenue, Portland, Oregon

Lucy Cotter’s practice encompasses experimental and art critical writing, curating, and performance to engage with art as a form of knowledge production and a site for cultural and political transformation. Recent curatorial projects include Undoing Language: Early Performance Works by Brian O’ Doherty at The Kitchen, New York (2021), and a year-long program as Curator in Residence at Oregon Center for Contemporary Art (2021-22). She was curator of the Dutch Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale (2017). Internationally published in books, catalogs, and journals including Flash Art, Frieze, and Artforum, she is the author of Reclaiming Artistic Research (2019). Cotter holds a PhD in Cultural Analysis from the University of Amsterdam. Irish-born, she is currently based in Portland.

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