The Secret Life of Vowels - Viewing Room

The Secret Life of Vowels

31 May - 20 July 2024

The investigation of words, language and letters and how they exist in the body through the medium of painting has been at the center of Rebecca Watson Horn’s practice for several years. “The Secret life of Vowels,” Horn’s first solo exhibition in Paris, presents two strands of her ongoing linguistic and material research: a series of see-through, suspended works on wide-weave burlap titled Semaphores, and a series of compressed, thick burlap canvases called Sigils.

Her works begin with a written phrase, an intention or a spell that becomes plastic through the gestural application of paint on a rough burlap surface. The words are erased or obfuscated in the process of becoming a painting. The initial purpose is abstracted, emphasizing the shape and the weight of the lines. Her characters become autonomous, unruly forms, inviting the viewer to read through them in the light of their own experience.

By destroying and reconstructing language, the paintings become sigils—a term borrowed from ancient witchcraft and medieval occult traditions—a kind of stand-in or symbol of the now materialized, de-literalized intention. One of the methods to make a sigil is by removing the vowels. In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson describes how consonants are the first instance of pure abstraction -- they only exist as an idea until they become animated by the vowel. An inexplicable force needs to operate in order to activate language and meaning, either the breath, the body, magic, or painting itself.

Although considered as separate bodies of work, the Semaphores and the Sigils could be seen as different stages of the same process. The Sigils are heavily painted canvases on different grid-like surfaces of burlap, in loose or tight weaves. The porosity and roughness of the material demands a continuous application of oil paint, enabling a process of erasure and reconstruction, where forms emerge and the letters become figures or absences. The Semaphores are painted on an open-weave, transparent burlap, where the poured acrylic shapes feel suspended in the weave instead of embedded in its materiality. If transparency and layers are present in the Sigils, the Semaphores spatialize those layers, as if expanding a painting’s process and history into a three-dimensional form.

Horn’s work explores the ways in which language exists inside the body, moving in and out of self, in and out of believing the story of one’s own narrative, and in and out of desire.