Excerpt from Visual Languages//Material Words
An Exhibition Essay by Christina Schmid, October 2021
801 Gallery, Minneapolis October 9, 2021 - January 29, 2022
Judith Yourman’s ceramic drawings and sculptures explore the visual language that precedes words. Inspired by an archive of early drawings by her twin daughters, the artist creates clay bodies, three-dimensional or etched into flat clay forms whose outlines follow the contours of line-drawn figures. The figures and forms appear stripped down to the simplest possible means of expression. Such reduction distills them into something evocative: They speak the language of potentiality rather than precision. The palette is restrained: No glazes mar the appearance of the stoneware’s color. Earthy, the figures are often funny, big-bellied, and round. Some look startled; some rather stern. A group of three lounges on shelves in what looks like an affectionate parody of artists’ models: On their sides, legs stretched out and arms draped, their bulbous bodies pose in a goofy semblance of elegance. Void of facial features, their heads are marked with a single circle rather than eyes, nose, and mouth. A second line, stained in black as well, loops on each belly. The face and the gut: two modes of perceiving the world, sensory and intuitive, suggest a language beyond, before the symbolic parsing of the world according to words.
Similar forms repeat in the more two-dimensional ceramic drawings. Lines loop and eddy, each of their curves a remnant of a hand’s movement, repeating, learning the skills of making a mark, leaving a trace, telling a story. Using digital means, the artist elongates and distends the children’s drawings, a playful experimentation that exaggerates some features and conjures entire characters. Yourman likens the process of engaging with the drawings to studying a new language: Each is an iteration of a visual code that her twins shared as children. The mother watches, then mimics, reiterates, and improvises, thus reversing the typical process of language acquisition. Rather than outgrow this stage of expression, like her children did, Yourman develops her own visual syntax by shuffling and varying their drawings’ elements. One set of gestures leads to another, one utterance spawns another. Lines become the equivalent of phonemes, semes, morphemes. Parts of speech get simplified, others over-generalized, mispronounced, creatively if not correctly combined – all the stages of early language acquisition made manifest in drawing.
In her collages, Yourman situates digital reproductions of her figures in abstract worlds composed of torn and cut paper. They float and tumble through their environments. Their relationship with these spaces remains as mysterious as they do. In the installation at Gallery 801, the collages are mounted above the ceramic drawings, which in turn hang suspended above the sculptures. The work shifts as it progresses upwards, grows lighter and flatter in turn. There is meaning here, too, but it remains unspoken and elusive. Most poignant among the creatures’ many interactions are the moments when twinned figures reach and lean toward for each other. Clearly, their odd-shaped bodies are in communication. Even without touch, they reference and rely on each other in a way that moves without a need for words. They do not read as couples but as bound together by a different bond, a resonance that reaches beneath the skin. Spending time with them, immersed in Yourman’s visual language studies, the question of what words can and cannot convey arises. Which intimacies and connections fall through the cracks between words, between languages?