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Artist enhances beauty of art with language

Conventional language is an important tool in relaying the meaning of art, Adrian Piper, an artist who visited the College last Thursday told students during her lecture at the Music Building Concert Hall.

Piper is an artist who for over 30 years has created work through various forms of media that focuses on racism, racial stereotyping and xenophobia. She now investigates the deeper spiritual and ideological pathologies that cause these issues.

The award-winning artist who teaches at Wellesley College shared insights from her career on the use of conventional language in understanding art with the College community.

Piper said that when she started to move away from photorealism, a style of painting which resembles photography, she was surprised at how many people misinterpreted her art. Her goal, she said, was to make people question, “Well, what’s that?”

“In my own mind, I just needed to do what I needed to do,” she said.

But with her work under review from busy art critics who needed to produce text quickly, she said it was easy for the public to read an erroneous explanation that had nothing to do with her take on the art.

She was always astonished when people didn’t react the same way. But she later come to realize that we come from a diverse society so it made sense for them to perceive things differently.

At this point, Piper said an artist has two choices: to be quiet and receive the comments directed at you or to correct people and jeopardize your career.

To avoid such a conflict, she said that an artist needs to be prepared to explain what he or she is doing because public perception can distort the intended meaning.

To adequately explain the piece, Piper suggests embracing the use of conventional language. Using plain English can act as a training ground to accustom people to see the intentions of artist’s work, she said.

“All the words, all things we say and write are objects,” Piper said, adding they can function as tools regardless of their interpretive function. According to Piper, when we see text as aesthetic, we see art differently.

To demonstrate her point, Piper repeated “now” 10 times until the word lost meaning to listeners. “Starts to sound pretty weird,” she said. “But weird’s a good thing.”

To further explain, Piper presented autobiographical self-portraits in which text was laid over pictures from her past.

One piece portrayed her struggle with being an African-American woman who doesn’t look black. The text over her picture described incidents in which she felt this conflict.

“If I (settled) to just show the image, the range of interpretation would be way, way more broad than I would be happy with,” she said.

Another example was a picture of her as a child in a coat. Her parents spent a lot of money on the coat because at the private school she attended, a student who didn’t wear the right label was a social outcast.

“It was basically the same story as the movie ‘Mean Girls,'” she said.

Piper’s work also includes video pieces. “I am black,” she declared in her production. “Cornered.”

In the video, she sat like a news reporter at a table in a corner and told the audience what it is like to be a black person who is not easily discernible as an African-American.

“I really would prefer not to disturb you,” she said. “But, you see, I can’t because I’m cornered.”

Piper said she developed the piece because she was frustrated by how people who thought she was white treated her with respect until they found out she was really black. She said the piece “is about overcoming distances.”

Pipe received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the City College of New York and her master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard.

Her work has been exhibited in museums across the world, from the Museum of Modern Art to the Musee d’Art Moderne de Ville de Paris, the Galleria Emi Fontana in Milan and Voges und Deisen in Frankfurt.


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