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Back to Reviews 96

Joseph Grigely
Alain K.
December 16, 1995

© ArtNet Worldwide 1997

Joseph Grigely
Paula H.
January 12, 1996

Joseph Grigely
Untitled Conversation
at the Potato Cafe

Joseph Grigley
Untitled Conversation
at the Potato Cafe

joseph grigely

at ac project room

by Mia Fineman

Joseph Grigely, an artist and critical theorist

who became deaf as the result of a childhood

accident, is best known for exhibiting

compilations of scribbled notes written to him on

odd scraps of paper by friends and acquaintances

when he was unable to read their lips. Grigely's

"Conversations with the Hearing" usually take

place during noisy social gatherings-- at galleries,

restaurants, bars--where passing notes leaves behind

a visible residue of the ephemeral flow of cocktail-

party small talk.

Semiotically inclined critics have pounced on

Grigely's "inscribed conversations" as a tailor-made

illustration of the subordination of speech to

writing, a notion that has preoccupied French

theory for the last few decades. Clearly this is

no news to Grigely, himself an academic who has

just published a book on textual criticism,

Textualterity: Art, Theory, and Textual Criticism

(University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1995). The terse,

scribbled notes in his work have also been justly

compared to the bite-sized fragments of text rapidly

proliferating in the moveable feast of electronic

communication. The most tantalizing pleasure Grigely's

work offers, however, is the opportunity for spying

and textual eavesdropping, the chance to listen in

on a conversation from the passively hidden

perspective of a fly on the wall.

Grigely's latest body of work consists mainly of

small photographic "portraits" of his conversation

partners' hands surrounded by the ordinary table-

top detritus of coffee cups, cigarettes, books and

notepads. Many of the hands are shown in the act

of writing, a motif that certainly makes sense in

light of Grigely's larger project. However, this

work also contains a...well, heavy-handed reference

to the early '80s critical trope of photography as

a form of writing, which Rosalind Krauss has

explicitly linked to the glut of modernist images

of hands in the act of writing (see "When Words

Fail," October 22, fall 1982). But ultimately,

the central conceit of Grigely's photographs--

"diverting the traditional representation of

character and identity from the countenance of

the face to the countenance of the hand," as

the press release puts it--requires, or rather

elicits, an unusual degree of attentiveness.

To a certain extent, portraits of hands may

rely on common representational tropes (rough

like a worker's, smooth like a dandy's), but

these associations are less familiar and less

immediate than the kinds of information we glean

from faces. For all their gestural subtlety,

Grigely's images stubbornly maintain a frustrating

degree of anonymity not possible in more conventional

photographic portraiture.

The centerpiece of the show, Untitled Conversation

at the Potato Cafe, is a trompe-l'oeil reconstruction

of a Parisian cafe table calculatedly scattered with

scraps of paper excerpting a conversation between

Grigely and an anonymous dinner companion. The

carefully composed tableau--including a red and

white checked tablecloth, an empty bottle of Burgundy,

wine glasses, coffee cups, a used ashtray, burning

tea candles, and a dead red rose in a glass vase--does

little except to evoke a timeworn set of American

cliches about Parisian cafe culture. The notes on the

table are only slightly less contrived: "This part

of Paris is too hip for it's own good," comments one

of the interlocutors. "I love you, you know," a scrap

of paper partly hidden underneath a saucer mysteriously

offers. Reading over the shoulders of the absent diners,

one gets the sense that these fragmentary remnants

conceal more than they reveal--that the real dirt

is hidden somewhere between the lines. But as anyone

who has illicitly perused forbidden journal entries

knows, the promises of textual eavesdropping usually

far outweigh its payoff.

May 24-June 29, 1996, 15 Renwick St., NY, NY 10013

Mia Fineman is a New York writer.