On View52 Walker
April 8–July 1, 2022
Precision meets the edge of nonsense in govern me harder, Nora Turato’s solo presentation at 52 Walker. Vibrant murals painted from floor to ceiling are punctuated by seven enamel panels each emblazoned with graphic lettering, the font bolded and stretched and still just legible. Text runs along the bottom of the walls, fitting around corners, elastic and scarcely interrupted. At a distance, the alluring palette of the murals (cadmium red, electric green, yellow, and baby blue) and crisp, curving forms of the repeating shapes reads as digital. The lines morph as they are reproduced, resembling more a copy-paste function than the reality: painstaking stencil work. But look closely, and you can see the sharp lines waver, subtle imperfections that give vivacity to Turato’s project by providing evidence of the contradictions she is teasing out. In this slick sea of graphic smoothness and language lost from meaning, something has still been irrefutably made.
The source material for govern me harder is the same found language that gets scripted into Turato’s performance pieces. Culling words and figures of speech from books, thoughtless clips of conversation, and the internet, Turato has been collecting these “pools” of language since 2017. Formatted into graphic books, Turato performs the pools—the most recent of which, pool 5 (2022), just closed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—in modulating tones, playing with the rhythm of her voice until the words become more sound than symbol. Trying to follow any narrative is futile as Turato spins language through her lips less for what it means than how she can make it echo.
In govern me harder, the focus is the visuality of language. Formally trained as a graphic designer, Turato’s attention to pattern is fastidious. Here, as in her previous installations, found text is painted with exacting care. The show continues Turato’s exploration into what happens when a word or a phrase is voided of meaning to the point that its only merit is a graphic one. Where it wraps around the corners of the gallery, the text appears more like ad copy—decorative words used for their punchy provocations and visual appeal. The enamel panels hanging on the walls evoke the retro type treatments of cigarette packaging. Take the work i sold it for million bells (2022), with its blocky, wide script. Or you’re so vain (2022), perhaps the most recognizable phrase in the show, but which captures our attention first by how it has been framed in blue and yellow against black enamel, the letters “s” and “o” pulled wide to span the panel. Presented to us here, the words could mean almost anything and we read them only after we have looked them over thoroughly. Even the font itself, a freshly designed derivative of Helvetica, evokes smooth sameness. We are so used to seeing that particular genre of sans-serif now synonymous with elevated graphic design that it barely registers. govern me harder jolts the system by presenting us head on with these familiarities.
The tension between the rigor of Turato’s practice and the meaninglessness of her recycled and decontextualized text is fertile ground. What in lesser hands would read merely as ironic, exists in Turato’s installation as an exciting point of departure. Words are both medium and content, which opens a space to think critically about the half-life of textual meaning. Each time a phrase is re-used, its effectiveness denigrates until it is cliché. Turato takes this collapsed language and recirculates it, the words newly deployed for their graphic and sonic potentials.
It is a clever move that in turn opens the door unto another suite of questions, asking us to think about what happens when phrasing gets too familiar to convey any meaning beyond the fact of familiarity itself. Turato is upfront about how her interest in English is piqued by her status as a non-native speaker. As anyone who speaks a second language can attest, there is a certain magic to accessing multiple words, each with their distinct subtleties, to mean one thing. A chair is no longer just a chair, and the phonetics of a different language can stoke curiosity. But in that investigation, Turato has landed on a deeper, and perhaps more troubling line of inquiry. govern me harder asks us about the health of our tools for making and conveying meaning, and particularly how we might salvage and restore the unique potency of words to communicate novelty rather than reproduce ever-glossier iterations of something we have seen before.