The Problem with Language Is That It Is Made out of Words

Studio Sessions

The Problem with Language Is That It Is Made out of Words

By Monica Westin March 20, 2019

Studio Sessions offers behind-the-scenes access to artists, writers, curators, and creative individuals through a variety of tête-à-tête conversations that consider the how, and what, and where of making art. Studio Sessions are presented as interviews, profiles, and studio visits through text, photo essays, and videos.


As an artist and writer (who constantly blurs the line between those identities), Maria Porges has worked with language for years, from conceptual word-game-based piecessculptures that use books as found material, and to explorations of letters as literal vessels. Now, with Shortest Stories, she has written a book in which the image-text relationships hover in a strange new space: somewhere between captions, illustrations, and a startling formal exploration of what makes us believe in language at all.

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Monica Westin: In your stories, the images do not illustrate the text, and the text does not function as captions for the images. Yet, there is often a feeling or mood that exists between the two, some times direct and other times more tangential. What was the process for putting these stories together, and how were you thinking about linguistic and visual language while you were doing so?

Maria Porges: The collages came out of a desire to bring together the kind of images I’ve always been drawn to—I am a big fan of children’s book illustration as well as of the bizarre encyclopedias created for young people in the early-to-mid-twentieth century—with the typography displayed inside the boxes of books I inherited from my father’s mother, a citizen of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire and an avid reader of mediocre German translations of novels by British writers. These volumes—printed in many different, old-fashioned, blackletter typefaces, all equally impenetrable—were unwanted by libraries or collectors and destined for the landfill by the time I took them in. For me, their new life as art functioned as a weird kind of reclamation of their value and, at the same time, serves as an uncomfortable recognition of the decreasing role of books in a digital-media world.

"There are men out there," she said with a kind of charred enthusiasm. "My advice to you is to put on a little lipstick and stand still so they can find you." She got into the elevator. As the doors closed, I saw her pulling on her gloves.

Each collage in Shortest Stories contains a mixture of Old World illustrations, words and pictures from 1960s textbooks and readers, bits of sheet music, and other random ephemera. Gravure images from nineteenth-century novels and snippets from my grandmother’s letters mix with Dick-and-Jane-style pictures of happy girls and boys, or diagrams from outdated science books and encyclopedias.

The process of putting together images and writing was intuitive and followed no particular set of rules. The stories are a mixture of memoir and complete fantasy; their styles range from hard-boiled detective novels to dystopian novels, from fairy tales to pulpy romance bodice-rippers. I actually created both bodies of work separately, and then once I’d decided to join them (so to speak), I simply spread them out on a big table in my studio and just put them together, like some crazy matchmaker. Later, I did make some collages with stories in mind, but this happened only at the very end.

MW: The pictorial images in the stories are obviously collaged together; the stories appear at first to be single, coherent vignettes because they're written in standard prose. Yet, the texts themselves are often deeply strange, if not fragmented. Are you interested in the way that we read internal coherence into images versus into texts?

MP: I think we want to read internal coherence into everything. Life without coherence is pretty scary. I use the first-person voice to make it easier for readers to slip from one text into another and to make the text seem like it’s going somewhere you can follow, but their strangeness is at the center of their reason for existing. And just because I say “I” does not mean that I am talking about my own experience! (Well, not always.) I am trying to figure out (and have been for quite a long time) how to tell a complete story in a paragraph: to make a place, wherever that place is, and give the reader a tiny window onto it.

When she turns towards the light, you can see the scar, a silvery divot in the otherwise unmarked expanse of soft and poreless skin stretched across her forehead's flattened curve, framed by all that hair. When it happened, you asked for a surgeon to fix it, knowing already that what remained would be otherwise twisted, visible, discolored, large, but the doctor at the ER—bored, unpleasant, possibly offended by her beauty even then, told you to pay for cosmetic surgery later in life "if it was that important." This casual cruelty was painful then. Still, you've come to realize that it had a purpose: teaching both of you the measure of time.

MW: In interviews, you have said, “The problem with language is that it is made out of words.” I know you've talked about the relationship between physical material and subject matter. Would it be better if language were made out of more aesthetic things that we could all feel in sensory ways?

MP: When I said that, I was talking about the apple and oranges question. Language describes experience; it is not experience itself. That’s pretty much all I meant. There’s a great poem by Frank O’Hara that sort of talks about the same thing, titled “Why I am Not A Painter.”

MW: In many of your stories, I love the repeated use of the circular “do over, do over...” emblem that appears. How are iteration and repetition relevant to this project?

MP: Circular texts are a preoccupation of mine. My other recent book project, What Goes Around, is entirely made of circular stories and phrases. That “do over” was a byproduct of the research I did at Kala, printing and trying things out. I have always been interested in ideas about time—whether it is circular (like the seasons, or the revolutions of the planets) or more like an arrow (shot from here, toward some distant destination) or a spiral, like Borges’s library. (I am indebted to Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle by Stephen Jay Gould.)

They were always giving us special tests of one kind or another. One day, a student from a teacher's college came into our classroom, asking each of us to draw a woman. We had plenty of time, so I pictured her wearing a cowboy hat and a Western shirt with elaborate fringe. Afterwards, the student told us this was part of a Mental Quotient Score—the newest wrinkle in intelligence measurement. Naturally, when she came back again, I drew a bearded man with glasses and a typewriter (which I struggled to depict). Oddly, my scores for the two evaluations were exactly the same.

MW: I also loved the repeated motif asking why we are like our parents; it feels like a riddle underneath all the stories that makes me think about how DNA (a code, a language) is translated into materiality (proteins, bodies). Are you interested in the process of how words become things or how words make things?

MP: Yes. What lies at the center of my work are both the questions of how the word is made flesh (that particular line in the Mass has always fascinated me) and how close some words are: if you just take a letter away, or add one, you can arrive at something completely different.

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Maria Porges, an artist and writer, is an Oakland native. The recipient of a SECA award from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, she focuses her studio practice on sculpture and drawing; she has had more than twenty-five solo exhibitions at galleries, museums, and alternative spaces. She received a BA from Yale University and an MFA from the University of Chicago, and has taught or lectured at many art schools and universities, including Stanford University, San Francisco Art Institute, University of California at Berkeley, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and University of Illinois at Champaign. She is presently an associate professor in the Graduate Fine Arts program at California College of the Arts. Since the early 1990s, Porges’s critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Ceramics, Glass, and the New York Times Book Review. She has also authored essays for more than 100 exhibition catalogues, blogs at wordsaboutart.com, and has twice been in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts.

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