Breaking the Rules of Graphics

This Artist is Deeply Dangerous, an 11-metre painting, opened at
The Grey Gallery as part of 2009’s Edinburgh Art Festival

Bob and Roberta Smith – a man, not a couple – is well known for his instantly exciting text art. Brightly coloured lettering, slogans and at times misspelled musings on politics and culture have brought him recognition around the world. Closer to home he has been consolidating his reputation with hosting the Resonance FM radio show MAKE YOUR OWN DAMN MUSIC, having his sculpture shortlisted for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, and recently being appointed a Tate trustee. His latest creation, This Artist is Deeply Dangerous, an 11 metre painting based on Tennis correspondent, Steve Bierley’s article on a Louise Bourgeois exhibition, features in this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival, at The Grey Gallery, from 5 August until 5 September.

This Artist is Deeply Dangerous is centred on the cross pollination of different types of journalism, and is sure to agitate discussion. In one corner, there is art criticism; paunchy, vague and at times mean spirited, the genre has accumulated its fair share of detractors over the decades. In the other corner, there is sports journalism; strident, informed and altogether more accessible than its arty counterpart. In 2008, a small group of arts and sports journalists did a job swap for the Guardian. Tennis correspondent, Steve Bierley, accustomed to writing about Wimbledon or the World Cup, was despatched to Paris to cover the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Pompidou Centre. His response was printed soon afterwards. Artist Bob and Roberta declared it: “the best writing about art I have read in a long time.” As a result, Smith took every word of the article and copied it onto an 11-metre canvas. The resulting work is This Artist is Deeply Dangerous.

This show is the logical step, and segues happily with our uncertain time, being both beautiful and mischievous, at its heart it possesses a generous tip of the hat to the skills of others. In this case, sports writing, or, to be specific, Steve Bierley: “Sports journalism is crafted in a way that creates so much expectation, even mid-sentence. There’s the famous bit of sports commentary ‘they think it’s all over… it is now!’ In sport you’re always waiting for the big finish, the goal, the end.” Bierley’s piece on Louise Bourgeois appeared in the Guardian in June 2008, and does indeed rush headlong into enthusiastic praise for Bourgeois, who Bob and Roberta Smith labels “the best artist in the world.” Indeed, so enamoured was Bierley that Bob and Roberta commented that he was “spooked by it. He ends up with this line that I thought was quite funny, but also quite moving: ‘The work should have carried a health warning. This artist is deeply dangerous.’”

And so we have the eponymous work readying to unleash a blizzard of hand painted words in gloss enamel on Edinburgh. The ripples spread. The sports writer’s response to the 97-year-old Bourgeois is in turn transformed into a massive work of art, word for word. An amusing idea, but one that is also underpinned with a sharp eye for aesthetics, so that it becomes more than a provocative postmodern piece: it becomes a thing of beauty. It is this overlap between ideas, aesthetics and intuition for colour that first catches the eye. The scale of the latest piece is new territory for Bob and Roberta and he finds it liberating. “I really like the idea that there’s a fairground aspect to it you can put it in the back of the van and assemble it in a different way.” As with most of his work, Bob and Roberta brings to This Artist is Deeply Dangerous an artist’s appreciation of sign writing, with its reassuringly familiar fonts. His font of choice – nicknamed ‘sign writer’s block’ and used as a primary template in the early 20th Century – can still be seen on faded signs around London.

His respect for graphic writing’s cosy aesthetics and traditional rules is genuine and is manifested in his work, as befits the artist, however, the gusto with which he subverts the rules is quietly thrilling. “I’ll use colours intuitively. Drop shadow, highlights. I’m interested in what happens when the artist breaks the rules of graphics. A lot of the time the result is unintentional. For example, people come in and read all the words painted yellow.” This sequined approach to displaying text suggests a form of dyslexia, with words swarming, swimming and at times leaping off the panels. “I had problems reading when I was a kid. I took the dyslexia tests and failed them. So I was lazy, not dyslexic,” he laughs. It is this fusion of familiarity, respect for rules, and a sense of fun in breaking them that lends his work a simultaneously sexy and discombobulating rush.

But it’s not just the sense of opulent discord that endows This Artist is Deeply Dangerous with its unique power. It’s not just the look of the words, all glossed up like sweets in a jar, it’s how they read, how the sentences are crafted, the paragraphs are calibrated, the meaning made precise. This stems from two things, according to Bob and Roberta Smith, the superiority of sports writing over arts criticism, and the specific talents of Steve Bierley. “With that article, it was about the craft of the writing. The structure of the language, the English that he uses, the grammar of it; it was really great writing. It reminds me a little bit of Keith Waterhouse. Realist writing, very straightforward, but not empty, not banal.” As opposed to arts criticism then? “Open up any art magazine and you’ll see the clarity of writing is confused. Art theory can be great but it doesn’t always make for clear writing.” But what’s to be done? Art is almost by definition a slippery, fluid and provocative force. It’s never going to engender the same “call a spade a spade” response that sports writing can afford, and if it does surely we’ll miss out on those shades of meaning that all great art possesses? Bob and Roberta’s point though is not so much the nature of art criticism, but the somewhat fossilised mindset of many of its writers. “In newspapers certainly there are a lot of ‘mid-life crisis men’. Their interest in art has passed and so they’re always critical of youth and young women artists, and they want to bring everything backwards. They think they’re more important than the person they’re writing about, which is really sad. Lazy writing has to come to an end.”

Bierley’s article is always going to strike a chord with such disillusionment. Sports writing has inherent momentum, while many art critics “are just voicing their own ennui.” But there is something else at play here. Bierley approached his subject as a “newbie”. His response comes accompanied with a type of innocence. Couple this with the nature of the Louise Bourgeois exhibition he was covering in the article, with the 97-year-old artist as spiky, irreverent and threatening as ever, and you get a sense of the spark that flickered to life when Bob and Roberta Smith read it. “Steve Bierley’s article was very touching. He was obviously moved by what he saw, a different world.” And such is the vitality of This Artist is Deeply Dangerous, layers and layers of referencing bejewelled with gloss enamel sign writing, and at origin a wide sense of wonder.

Greg McGee