Hack Wit

RONI HORN'S WORK urges us to see the unfamiliar in familiar materials and phenomena—the weather, for instance. She has described water as “just tumult everywhere endlessly, tumult modulating into another tumult all over and without end,” a notion she conveys particularly well in the 2000 photographic series “Some Thames,” which lingers over form-defying ripples and reflections of the river’s surface. She seeks to put viewers in a state of flux, too. Her Water, Selected, 2007, made up of cylinders filled with water collected from different glaciers in Iceland, not only points to the hazards of global warming but also calls attention to fluctuations in the viewing experience—the columns change with each movement through the installation, each new angle of light. Horn encourages similar shifts in perspective in her language-based work, paintings and sculptures that incorporate texts by Emily Dickinson and Clarice Lispector. Dickinson, a writer who understood varying angles of perspective (“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”), is an especially apt influence. Horn delights in the way the poet’s language refuses to be grasped: In a 2003 interview, she stated that “never becoming familiar is a quality [Dickinson’s] work shares with water.”

In her new book, Hack Wit, Horn seems to be drawing on firmer linguistic material, idiomatic phrases such as “all over me like a cheap suit,” “life is just a bowl of cherries,” “hitch my wagon to a star,” and “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” But if these familiar sayings have a stable meaning (and a sustained contemplation of “happy as a clam” would suggest that they don’t), Horn has pushed them into the realm of the senseless. First, she painted the phrases, one per sheet. The lettering has a handcrafted feel (no pixels here), and the words—their ink boundaries containing watercolors that shift in shade as the phrase progresses—appear to float on the page, unanchored to any grid. She then took the sheets, in twos, and sliced them apart, reassembling the words on a single page. Some of the results put a droll spin on William S. Burroughs’s cut-up technique: “On the tip of a finger have my tongue in every pie.” But this is more than a word game. Horn gets increasingly violent with the knife. In “all snug as a bug in a cheap suit like a rug over me” and Hack Wit—Lucky Water, she hacks some letters to unrecognizable bits, which accumulate around the mutilated verbal carcasses.

Roni Horn, Hack Wit—Lucky Water, 2014, watercolor, graphite, and gum arabic on watercolor paper, cellophane tape, 23 3/4 × 17 1/2". Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

In an accompanying poem titled “Hack Gloss,” itself a feat of repetition and verbal rearrangement, Anne Carson refers to “the possibilities of simple proximity of two common tongues.” Horn’s paintings make slips of the tongue using slips of the knife. The idioms survive, perhaps inviting us to admire how durable they are. But Horn removes any pretense that their meanings are self-evident. She makes it impossible for them to retain their air of nonchalance, or their familiarity. If words can be like water, these idioms have become frozen through overuse. Horn breaks the ice.