What Are Words For?

February 3–March 19, 2023
Curated by Robyn Jablonski

What Are Words For?

Mixed media piece with big, blue letters "C.E." at the top and "Counterpoint" at the bottom; a gray, blue and red elephant at the center of the composition; red letters and swatches of color in the top right corner
Luke Shemroske (American, b. 1991). Counterpoint, 2018. Mixed media on canvas, 9 x 12 in. Photo courtesy Project Onward

What Are Words For?

There is much an artist conveys when adding words to their images. The significance can lie simply in their placement in the composition, or the words can enhance and juxtapose the image’s meaning and challenge definition, which, in turn, challenges the definition of the word or phrase itself. For artists like Luke Shemroske and Molly McGrath, words may be presented as a learning process—through repetition of the words and their images or by boldly stating them as fact, as if to say: “Aha, I have a grasp on the meaning of this phrase or word, even if only in this present moment in time!” In some cases, artists present these words as questions to the world. Shemroske asks: “I love myself, Avoidance is Bad, Bad idea, I am a Pilgrim, Live Fast, and Love is Strong, Death is Impending.

However, at times, words can be finite and yet ambiguous, because language is constantly changing over time. If the inclusion of words in artistic expression and images has the potential for unintentional meaning, does their absence signify permanence? Can a picture say more than a thousand words? In many ways, yes, because it uses a visual language that is cryptic, expressive and intuitive between the artist and the audience. Is Safiya Hameed’s Butterfly such an image? Could it be an aspect of the artist’s mind or, maybe, a malevolent spirit that had to put image to paper through her automatic method of drawing? One also senses such impact in the expressive and repetitive lines, images and strokes in Catherine Butterfly’s Fall of Babylon.

Words can be vital elements of images. In the end, the inclusion of words is an artistic choice that can either enhance or, sometimes, become the image. What Are Words For? implores audiences to wander and wonder with these artworks and be present with the images and words presented.

Robyn Jablonski
Creative Director, Project Onward

Project Onward

A leader in the field of disability arts for its innovative blend of accuracy, artistic excellence and social engagement, Project Onward is a nonprofit studio and gallery in Chicago with a mission to provide artists with disabilities the opportunity to create their work in a safe, supportive studio environment; connect artists with disabilities with the arts community and the general public; and inspire change by using art to promote empathy and reduce the stigma of mental illness and developmental disabilities.

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View photos from What Are Words For? on Flickr.
What Are Words For?


Opening Reception: What Are Words For?
Friday, February 3, 2023, 5–8 p.m., Intuit

Art After Work: Project Onward
Thursday, February 23, 2023, 5–6:30 p.m., Project Onward

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