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If Twitter is our contemporary equivalent to the ancient Greek symposium, Karl Holmqvist’s exhibition #ALLTHISSCRATCHINISMAKINMEITCH… might be droll graffiti scrawled on the side of the Parthenon. Full of scribbled half-thoughts, micro-referential Solange lyrics, and trenchant allusions to buzzy political topics, Holmqvist’s exhibition at House of Gaga, Los Angeles resides squarely within the substantial shadow of contemporary internet culture. The so-called “cradle of democracy” would be a fitting home for an artist whose mostly text-based practice attempts to create a certain level playing field across words—a “democratic language,” as Holmqvist termed it in a recent lecture.1 This has been a theme of Holmqvist’s work for some time: in a 2012 interview with Art in America,2 the artist described his exhibition Words Are People as an attempt to “treat each word the same: as if ‘and’ could be as precious as ‘excellent,’ or what have you. A kind of equality going on between words.” And at Gaga, words there are aplenty. A series of canvases bear punny amalgams of big names in Hollywood and the fine arts: “KRISTEN STEWART UOO” reads one, “ANNE COLLIER SCHORR” another. Untitled (Room Divider) (all works 2019), an accordion of vertical canvases connected by hinges to form an impressive zigzag, bears patterned fragments of text and symbol.
Beneath these canvases, the exhibition’s wallpaper— which covers the gallery’s interior in a repeating pattern of hand-scrawled messages— pushes Holmqvist’s playful indulgence of language to its most striking extreme. This wallpaper, Untitled (#ALLTHISSCRATCHINISMAKINME-ITCH…), consists of a checker-board of approximately 2 × 4′ text panels that highlight the artist’s omnivorous appropriation of the lexicon. Holmqvist rarely writes original material for his artworks, and this piece’s text ranges from a lengthy Queen Elizabeth I quote to namedrops of genre-imploding contemporary rapper, Lil Nas X, and the eco-conscious apparel company, 4ocean. These all-caps jottings feel directly in dialogue with the digital, both in form—copy-and-pasted text scraps adorn this literal wall, as they might a Facebook page—and in content—as in several pithy forays into contemporary politics. (“MÉXICO ES AMÉRICA” is immediately recognizable Twitter speak.)
But if these are tweets, they’re entirely lacking in viral potential. Their cryptic, half-formed messages and clumsy syntax match the juvenile big-letters-only script in which they appear. “IS ALL THE POLLUTIONS IN THE OCEANS CORRESPONDING TO ALL THE BS WE’RE FULL OF AS PEOPLES? WE’RE 80% WATER YOU KNOW,” reads one wallpaper panel: the broken grammar feels like an I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER-style memeism, without the desired comic payoff. Only rarely could these lines be described as clever, with the notable exception of the exhibition’s title—another appropriation, this time of a vocal sample on Malcolm McLaren and the World’s Famous Supreme Team’s scratch-filled 1982 single “Buffalo Gals.”
This “close enough” approach to writing feels appropriate for an artist so radically committed to the decentralization of meaning-making. Holmqvist has expressed his fascination with the multiple meanings of language—“No fixed meaning was always very important to me,” he explained, describing a piece bearing the repeated phrase “GOING GOING GONE.” “And if you can handle all those levels of under-standing or meaning at the same time,” he continues, “then maybe we’re going somewhere.”3 This madcap semantic quixotism lends itself well to Holmqvist’s grab bag of cultural references and affinity for gibberish. The fabric panel adorning one end of Untitled (Room Divider) bears an endlessly repeating pattern of words: “SHE IS HERE HE IS HER SHE IS HERE HE IS HER.” Like a chanted incantation, this text burrows straight to that level of the brain’s language center where the zippered double helix of sense and syntax starts to unspool, fragmented messages assembling and disassembling fluidly.
It’s this multiplicity of interpretations—and its attendant ambiguity—that defines the outer limits of Holmqvist’s project, for better or worse. Holmqvist clearly envisions a sort of ouroboros of cultural material, with the internet’s unceasing stream of references (both high and low) feeding the artworks which he then places back into the hands of the public for interpretation. Pop culture feeds fine art which Holmqvist admirably returns to the popular domain, refusing to draw a meaningful line between the two.
It’s worth noting that three of the show’s raw canvases bear no text at all, but rather patterned slits and markings. In context, these come across as far more expressive than their text-heavy neighbors, their brutal gestures suggest-ing a frustrated rejection of wordiness, while the expressive potential of Holmqvist’s recycled language scraps is quickly diluted in his repetitive word soup.
Indeed, taken to its logical conclusion, Holmqvist’s principle of multiplied meaning is complete randomness— nonsense, linguistically speaking. #ALLTHISSCRATCHINISMAKINMEITCH… doesn’t push all the way to this extreme—its text forms legible phrases and sentences and its world is recognizably our own—but it certainly comes close. Perhaps such chaos is the truest manifestation of Holmqvist’s “democratic language,” but the results can feel like a whole lot of noise. As seductive and thoughtfully principled as this Scrabble board fantasia might be, Holmqvist’s breakneck pursuit of all possible meanings risks arriving at none at all.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 18.