Hipótesis on Thought and Meaning

By Chris Barton, Co-editor

What is the meaning of grey?

I found myself wondering this – and other formulaic non sequiturs – last week, as I meandered through the mind-expanding landscape of Horacio Zabala’s Hipótesis (Hypotheses), a series of provocative art pieces currently on display at the Phoenix Art Museum. An Argentinian artist with a flair for conceptual art, Zabala’s exhibition, titled “Mapping the Monochrome,” is on view through March 12th and is very worthy of a visit.

Hipótesis might best be described as a series of ideas understandable only in the way they are presented, as an ordered series of paintings and symbols. While much of painting offers the viewer an image which to plumb for meaning, Zabala turns the image itself into an asymbolic artifact – a blunt, empty vessel for meaning – and then places it in explicit relation with other images.

Hipótesis XV 2010 Acrylic on canvas and wood, enamel and wood Courtesy http://www.horaciozabala.com.ar/english/obras.html
Hipótesis XV
Acrylic on canvas and wood, enamel and wood
Courtesy http://www.horaciozabala.com.ar/english/obras.html

Viewing Hipótesis is a disconcerting experience, as the art dares you to think yet precludes any meaningful conclusions you might reach. Take, for example, “Hipótesis XV,” left. A white canvas is perhaps the least obviously meaningful artifact possible, and by itself it would have no impact on the viewer – yet it’s not by itself. The black dot to its right we recognize as a period. The white canvas isn’t just a white canvas. It’s a ‘White Canvas.’ The period implies the end of a declaration; the white canvas is a declaration. What is it declaring? What does it mean? The chasm between the symbolically dense period and the symbolically void canvas engulfs the viewer. Like much of the world’s best art, Hipótesis XV turns the viewer’s mind in on itself – you end up projecting meaning where none exists, analyzing your own mind, thinking about thinking.

“My intention, and my attention,” writes Zabala, “are not only oriented toward what is effectively seen, but also toward what is thought about what is seen.” Zabala’s medium is not the paintings or the sculptures, but rather the viewer’s thoughts, their methods of interpretation. And in bringing to light our methods of interpretation – our ways of knowing – Zabala makes obvious the otherwise subliminal framework of meaning-making.

Without delving too much into the wonder world of semiotics, it’s useful to identify three concepts: the signifier (something that represents, such as an object or a word), the signified (the idea which the signifier represents), and the interpretation (the interpretant’s response to the signified). A stop sign is a signifier, the act of stopping your car is the signified, and your understanding of the need to stop is the interpretation.

Sobre la gramática 2009 Acrylic on canvas Courtesy http://www.horaciozabala.com.ar/english/obras.html
Sobre la gramática
Acrylic on canvas
Courtesy http://www.horaciozabala.com.ar/english/obras.html

Hipótesis plays on the ideas of signifiers and signified. In Sobre la gramática (About Grammar), Zabala makes explicit the play of semiotics. The red square on the left is a signifier – yet it lacks an obvious signified. What does the red square mean, imply, represent? Nothing obvious or apparent. It’s a red square. Without a signified meaning, the interpretation is open – we might interpret it red like blood, or as a checkerboard square. With no meaning, interpretation is purely subjective. The square on the right is also a ‘empty’ signifier, but the brackets have well-understood signified meaning. It’s a (red square), muted and as a side-note. The interpretation is constrained, defined in some respects by the parenthesis; whatever we interpreted the first square as, the second is similar, but subdued. The difference between the two is the effect of grammar, and a showcase of the features of signifiers, signified, and interpretation.

This is the brilliance of Zabala’s work: if good art makes you think, Hipótesis makes you think about thinking. It reveals things to you about yourself, the way that you interpret the world, and the way that your interpretation is constrained. At the same time, it opens up possibilities of meaning: color and shapes are everywhere, overlooked elements of the forest of signifiers that make up our world. Hipótesis teaches us to interrogate these signifiers, and to make sense of our meaning-making process. It obliges us to ask:

What is the meaning of grey?

Hipótesis is on display at the Phoenix Art Museum through March 12th. Tbird students can visit any ASU library (other than the IBIC) and check out a ‘Culture Pass,’ which supplies two free admissions to the museum.

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