“Signs and Systems” Curated by Todd Keyser (MFAST ’11) Features MICA Alumni

MFAST Alum Todd Keyser curates a group exhibition “Signs and Systems” at Gross McCleaf Gallery in Center City Philadelphia. The show runs from June 6 – 28, 2013. There will be an opening reception for the artists on Friday June 7, 5 – 7pm. This exhibition will feature MFAST alum Dianne Pappas and Hoffberger School of Painting alums: Sean McDonough and Carly Witmer. The exhibition also features work by: Alison Berry, Cora Cohen, Joanne Grune-Yanoff, Kellianne McCarthy, Mira Schor, Douglas Witmer, and Pete Zebley.

Semiotics as a theory of signs and symbolic activity has been around since Plato and Aristotle, but its primary contributors are Ferdinand de Saussure (Swiss, 1857 – 1913) and Charles Sanders Peirce (American, 1839 – 1914). The two developed a systematic framework by which to analyze and decode cultural work. According to Pierce, anything can be a sign to anybody who nominates it to be so. Signs are usually a bundle of other subservient signs that create a meta-sign (a single sign made up of many). Works of art function in this way – they are made up of more than one or can infer more than one understanding of an aesthetic proposition. The making and reception of works of art are coded activities and some encounters prove more difficult than others – largely depending on how much you know prior to your encounter.  Reading a work of art requires a certain amount of indoctrination and education.

In the United States, Clement Greenberg’s influence as an art critic and writer negated the formal agency of content in modern American painting and sculpture. The appearance of semiotics in the visual arts didn’t gain much currency until the late 1950s with the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham.  Historians and theorists such as Leo Steinberg, Fred Orton, Marjorie Perloff, and Roland Barthes were the first to tackle the significance of these emerging artists. Steinberg articulated the change from the purely formal to the literal. He wrote about the end of the magic of transcendent qualities in painting and sculpture and the beginning of what he called “literalness”.  On the other hand, Clement Greenberg’s successor, Michael Fried, continued to maintain his predecessor’s aesthetic position.  He labeled the “literalness” of these emerging artists as “theatricality”, thereby rejecting the assumption and validity of their work. What ensued was the continuing struggle of one aesthetic position as opposed to the other – a polarity that continues to this day.

“Signs and Systems” seeks to establish a dialogue and investigation of aesthetic intent and outcome as it pertains to the works in this exhibition. The results are as varied as each artist’s approach, and indicate further evidence of painting and sculpture as an expanded field rather than a contained one.


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