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Greinar: by Jón Proppe  |  by Hannes Sigurðsson   |  by Þröstur Ásmundsson  |

A Dance of the Letters

Jón Proppe

Type catches our eye and the letterforms lead it on along the line of text. We recognise text and read it wherever it may crop up. Despite the incessant bombardment of signage and printed matter we grasp the words and messages seep in, for better or for worse. But type is very different from the images which also work well in advertising. Typeset text invites reading and when we read the text opens up to and with it the whole culture and history from which it was born.
This is the key to why Jón Laxdal’s art is so engaging. Jón uses typeset text and its minions – the page, its margins and columns – but his art consists in a sort of interruption of our reading, a gentle deflection of the process that would lead us from text to understanding. The works are thus a kind of abstraction where the presentation and formal rules of typography are observed but the text itself fades into the background or is changed, along with its context, into something else. Semiotics have taught us how arduous the path is from text to language – how many layers separate the reader from the sense of the text – and Jón Laxdal inserts himself neatly into this process, touching off sparks of new understanding.
Type in Art

Such use of type and the printed word has a history so complex that it cannot be traced along a single strand. Yet it was an important element in the emergence of avantgarde art at the beginning of the twentieth century and in its development ever since. The French poet Guilliaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) had some of his poems set so as to figuratively support the text and called them Calligrammes. The best known is undoubtedly “Il pleut”, “It Rains”, where the lines run down the page like drops of rain on a window pane. Some of his contemporaries, however, carried the idea much further in their fliers for performances and art exhibitions where they freely mixed letters and glyphs from the typesetters case to produce their posters, poems and pamphlets, thumbing their nose at typographic tradition and good taste. This quickly led to all manner of experiments some of which successfully entered the canon and examples of which dot textbooks in both art and literature. The purely poetic expression of this method is known as Concrete Poetry and forms a recognised genre, if a marginal one. Typographical experiments in the visual arts have more complex sources, including signs and advertising, graffiti and the typographic tradition itself which has developed rapidly alongside the arts.

The late romantics at the end of the nineteenth century had already understood the possibilities of type and how with careful use it could support and even lead new aesthetic thought. All over Europe periodicals and books appeared where the entire appearance – including the type, at least in headings – reflected the new stylistic approach of the artists as part of their effort to invent a gesamtkunstwerk, art that would incorporate all aspects of human creativity and perception. Artists were no longer content with their own media but sought to extend their ideas to all manner of production. William Morris (1834–1896) and the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain stipulated a return to craftsmanship and utilitarian art and its member wove carpets, carved furniture and designed wallpaper in addition to painting. They also wrote and printed books of their own design and, with Edward Johnston (1872–1944), reinvented the art of hand lettering and exerted a profound influence on the development of modern typefaces. Art Nouveau in France, Jugendstil in Germany and the Sezessionstil in Austria pursued a similar approach, though in a highbrow fashion when compared to Morris and his friends. In Barcelona the new style was known simply as modernisme and the works of Antoni Gaudí attest to the grand artistic visions that were born in this period. Stile Liberty in Italy was partly inspired by the production of the English movement. In Russia, under the harsh dictatorship of the Tsarist regime, such ideas became a potent political force and influenced the development of the revolutionary movement in which many of the artists became active members until their art was gradually suppressed a few years after the Bolsheviks took power. Here, typography played an even greater role than it had in the West, as can be clearly seen from the posters, pamphlets and books that were produced.

Yet the avantgarde wrought a profound change in our understanding of type and its artistic use. This transformation was led by the Futurists in Italy, the Constructivists in Russia and Dada in Germany, Switzerland and France but similar ideas were being pursued all over Europe. These artists sought a revaluation of all things to free them from the rigid grasp of tradition. They rejected most of the aesthetic principles of the past to the point, even, where the Italian Futurist Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944) exhorted the people of Venice to fill the canals with the rubble of the crumbling palazzos and usher in industrial future of steel and concrete. They sought to erode the boundary between life and art, idea and expression, culture and quotidian life. Some embraced popular culture and everyday objects while other sought to reduce art to its essence in an effort, as Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) put it, to free art from its dependence on things. Both approaches involve an abstraction of sorts, in the one case exploding the concept of art by rejecting all limitations on its methods and materials and, in the other, to seek its pristine core, independent of all media and methods.

“The letters have no conceptual content,” wrote the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948). “The letters themselves have no sound but only contain the possibility of sounds that the performer can interpret.” The written word was already the greatest step man had taken towards abstraction and the Dadaist’s fascination with type was in that sense a parallel to the abstract painters concentration on line, form and colour in favour of any representational content. Another of Dadaists, Hans Richter (1888–1976), called Dada typography “a dance of the letters aided by all the resources of the typesetter’s case”.

Typography has a reputation as a conservative art and indeed it relies heavily on tradition, it bywords are legibility and transparency, and its origins are in the classical revival of the renaissance. Though typographers most emphatically shun personal expression in their craft they have in the twentieth century systematically explored its various possibilities and the innovations have been significant, often developed in cooperation with authors. The early decades of the century saw exhaustive research into the type and typographic proportions, for example in the Bauhaus school, where typography was taught alongside design and art until the school was closed down as soon as the Hitler came to power in 1933. In the 1940s and 1950s, Swiss typographers led this research, shaping much of what we have come to think of as “modern” print design but also allowing for experimentation that influenced the production of artists books, for example many of Dieter Roth’s books and those of his contemporaries. Typography has, of course, reflected the artistic spirit of every era and played a key role in its spread. This is ever more so with the increased output of printed matter and advertising, not to mention the Internet. Now we see type everywhere, on signs and computers and on virtually everything we buy and eat or use, often, too, on art. The explosion in the use of typeset text makes it almost impossible to classify or comprehend in a systematic way. Despite this great flexibility, the basic letterforms survive, which is precisely why they are so useful.

The Search for Materials
On aspect of Jón Laxdal’s art is the collection and harvesting of raw material from stacks of old newspapers and sundry printed matter, his delicate relationship to yellowing newsprint, its typefaces, ornaments and organisational principles. This is an attractive aspect to many of us who still part only reluctantly with any printed matter and would secretly collect and hoard all the trivial flyers and handbills that come our way. These are the ephemera of print and as the name suggests they are never intended to survive the day. In old newspapers and pamphlets we can immerse ourselves in the daily life of a time gone by and old ideas and sensibilities come back to life as we handle such fragile mementoes. Such material in fact seems to show most clearly the spirit that infused daily life, often more so than the works that survive and thus become in some sense timeless. Examining Jón Laxdal’s works evoke similar thoughts, as though one were turning the leaves of an old scrapbook, a memory of some indistinct past. Here it is the paper itself and the texture of the old type that we are drawn to, as much as the form and textual content of the work.

This material has come to play an ever greater part in Jón’s work. At the very beginning he used mostly single letters or words which he carefully lifted from the original and rearranged on his pages. Gradually, more and more of the original material found its way into the work and he began to work with forms and arrangements drawn from the raw material itself, its columns and margins, frames and even images. He has even produced series of works made almost entirely from unprinted paper cut from the empty margins of old newspapers. The text, too, is given more room as Jón becomes surer in his approach and in his command of his chosen medium.

In collage works there is always a certain tension between the artist and material he uses. Found materials figure prominently in modern and contemporary art but anyone who uses it has to find a way to piece together the work of others to express an original idea of his own. Jón’s earliest works were along the lines of concrete poetry and the letters he cut out were perhaps primarily just convenient type for reuse. Jón also used transfer letters for a time. These early works appear in bursts or series where Jón explores new approaches to type and form, exhausting the possibilities of one idea before moving on to the next, turning out piece after piece. His approach becomes ever more focused and the choice of materials more precise. He selects his material – the letters, texts and images – not only on the basis of aesthetics. Rather they are the result of his long engagement with the originals and what they sought to communicate, an engagement that covers politics, philosophy, literature and gossip in one extended discussion.

Jón’s Approach to Art
Anyone can cut out letters, texts and images and rearrange them. It is even quite easy to produce clever puns and seemingly significant juxtapositions using collage and assemblage but Jón’s art is born of long practice and rigorous investigation. He came to art in a roundabout way, through philosophy and poetry, in the 1970s when the “new art” came to Iceland and started to erode the boundaries between these pursuits. Along with this new approach came an interest in Dada which had gone largely unnoticed in Iceland. What Jón found there – in the works of Schwitters and others – clearly appealed to him though direct references are hard to find in his work.

One may perhaps wonder why Jón, with his background, did not apply himself instead to the conceptual art that so many of his contemporaries embraced and that can, when successful, be like philosophy and poetry rolled into one. Perhaps it was a question of temperament. Jón, a watchmaker’s son, preferred to proceed carefully and chose and approach that yielded to careful study and patient application rather that flair and showmanship.

Jón Laxdal has always lived in the north and that is where he has pursued his long study. We should not speak of isolation here, for of course human life proceeds in Akureyri much as it does anywhere else and the district has produced several of Iceland’s most prominent contemporary artists. But most of them moved to Reykjav’k or even abroad while Jón chose to stay. This has left him somewhat outside the mainstream of Icelandic art but has, in turn, given him the time needed to concentrate on working out his ideas with such patience and industry as one could never hope to achive in the racier art scene of the capital. As a result, Jón has produced a magnificent body of work, complete and extensive beyond anything we are used to seeing in our fragmented urban environment.
The concrete poems opened Jón’s initial attempt at a visual presentation of his thought and in a remarkably short time he worked through its variations and eventually left them behind. Concrete poetry can be a little like opart in that way, clever and often inspiring but lacking in depth and relevance. in the next several series, dating from the mid-to-late 1980s, Jón proceeded to work through the various styles and presentations of the collage, exploring its materials and methods. Each series has its own set frame, proportions and scale, that determine the construction of each piece based on the material he uses. Within those limits, Jón again systematically varies his approach to test the possibilities and limits of his given format. Some pieces might be almost wholly abstract while others take their cue from the cuttings and scraps he has chosen to work with. Yet others are examine the compositional possibilities of the letterforms and glyphs themselves.

This methodology is of course well known in art but in Jón’s case it is more like watching a philosopher dissecting a concept, testing it with variables and gradually reducing it to its core. Little by little, Jón tackles new aspects of his medium and its materials. Along with his extensive formal investigations, he has studied colour and texture and finally even the content of the texts he selects for reuse, as well as their various contexts and connotations.

Through concentrated work and patient thought Jón has achieved such mastery of his art that his works provide us with his coherent analysis of both his contemporary environment and its historical sources. By ceaseless variation and experimentation he has found an approach that allows him to take on any subject.

Type, Objects and Theory
From the two dimensional world of the printed page, Jón Laxdal has been able to extend his approach to three dimensional objects. As with the collages, his approach is simple: He pastes the newsprint down on found objects or objects he has constructed himself. As with the collages, too, he has produced series of three dimensional works, for example series of bottles covered with print and images where the rounded shape of the bottle becomes the ground for his composition and gives it a solid presence in space. The method works for anything up to and including furniture which Jón has patiently covered in print. These pieces seem to underline the allencompassing presence of the printed word but they also attest to the artist’s immersion in his medium and his command over it. Perhaps we should think of these as the furnishings of his own conceptual world, in which case it seems it would be a nice place to visit or even to dwell in.

One imposing series presents a collection of tall columns on which Jón has tracts of theory, such as the selected works of Marx and Engels in Icelandic translation. Here, as in several other of his works, the piece constitutes his personal settling of accounts with the material at hand. The physical columns are monuments to Jón’s own struggle with the intangible and, in some cases, intractable text.

The use of three dimensional objects has also reinforced Jón’s tendency to let his material speak for itself with only minimal interference on his part, merely framed within the context of one of his evergrowing series, redefined by context. Three dimensional presentation has also alter his approach to the flat page, allowing him to place his material in small glasstopped boxes such as might be used by lepidopterists to store their samples. The comparison is not as frivolous as it might seem for Jón collects his samples with every bit as much dedication and enthusiasm. Almost anything can find its way into one of his cases, including in one instance Kant’s first critique, the bane of any philosophy student’s life. But placing Kant in a box in no way indicates that Jón has rejected the philosophical approach. Indeed, his whole output can be seen as an extension philosophy’s rigorous critique of the world and the words we surround ourselves with. This gives all his works their distinctive aura of thoughtful appropriation and study.
The current exhibition project allows us a rare chance to explore a body of work assembled with great care and through remarkably wide research. Jón’s work rewards us with a sense of solidity and clear thinking that has become all too rare in a world where everything is increasingly coming to seem as ephemeral as the clipping he has salvaged and reshaped.