Oh Terrible Language

Glass Armour: Fragile Shields: Karen Justl
December 6 , 1997 – January 10, 1998

a response to the exhibition by Susan Chafe

TITLES: Soft Target; the dimming vision; oh terrible language; long in the tooth, ribs removed to identify position in the cavity of the chest; a ghost pain; articular motives; disarticulation; mask to identify virtue; not listening; a thing that hinges hold; sentimental resignation; slitting my memory on a poetry of glass shards; dislocated pressure; if you were oyster and your teeth pearls; can you see, a pool of frozen water on the moon, intention exists before language.

Bolts, screws, glass, leather, aquarium, stitching, armour, torsos, xerox, lungs, ribs, wrist brace s, head braces, finger braces, frames, rivets, lamp, canvas, lace, photographs, a face with the skin peeled back, brown teeth embedded like wood rooted in the jaw bone. Architecture-like appendages that are lifeless mimics of the body (masks, braces, trusses). The endoskeleton becoming the exoskeleton, medical and moral structures for correcting the body, for holding it together, for confining it, for describing and escaping its formlessness or fracture or potential to fly apart. Electric copper and white on white on white thick paint.

Not listening not listening not listening.

Concise Oxford
p 737
medicine, medick, medico, medieval. p 597 incise, incision, incisive, incisor, incite, incivility, inclement, inclination, incline, inclinometer, inclose, inclosure, include, inclusive, incog, incognito, incognizant, incoherent. p 61 articular, articulate, articulation, artifact, artifice, artificial, artillery, artilleryman, artisan, artist.

This sexual bind, which both Bertha and Goldman recognized, is still one of the major definers of women’s lives. In terms of this bind, the complexities of understanding of women’s lives found in Boxcar Bertha: An Autobiography renegotiate the schism between the feminists who have interiorized the “Virgin” of patriarchal religion and society into their own beliefs and those feminists who refuse to comprehend that sexuality because of sexism is a problem for most women. –Kathy Acker, “Introduction to Boxcar Bertha”, Kathy Acker, Essays (Serpent’s Tail, London and New York).

The squeezing of language through a very tight space–is it the freedom (entrapment) of painting, the back turned only to face the freedom (entrapment) of language — language is a way out of (towards) painting and painting a way towards (out of) language.

From richly painted collages of the distressed body, with intense tactility and a large vocabulary of materials, to exquisite, precise etchings on glass and their cast shadows, which ironically, next to paintings heavy with physicality, are the most palpable objects in the gallery. The archival photograph of a cage-like helmet in Justl’s construction mask to identify virtue epitomizes the myth of the morally perfected body, but the etched pieces defy entrapment by casting a living shadow invested with presence. The third possibility: If you peer through the slats of the skeletal — the mechanical workings of things — you find a secret passage of evasion. This work experiments with evasion as a necessary strategy in the act of subversion but there is irony in the armour-like bravura of Justl’s constructions — riveted, glued, and bolted together — she addresses at the same time their beauty and permeability. It is the shadow that survives as the unshatterable “intention before language” because it is more palpable than the white on white on white and black on black and tar and rivets and and lace, which are, in themselves, rich and strange and beautiful — a world of the subconscious worth getting lost in. The glass, most delicate of substances, creates a shadow which is ungraspable, and therefore safe from damage. The most profoundly living element is the one that the hand has not touched.

The space outside representation which was once referred to as “ether” (p 401 – a medium formerly assumed to permeate space and fill the interstices between particles of matter), which because of its lack of definition or form is experienced by some people as paranoid space, is now called “technological” space. No technology need be present. It addresses the ethereal. This work has nothing to do with technology. Yet technology has brought on a new description of the space in these pieces that is altering the description of ether, so that I find technological space haunting these etchings and their shadows. Justl’s etching of a fey, medieval disembodied hand, floating on glass against black velvet, has a melancholy, futuristic ominousness, as arm braces now imply cyborgs and body reconstruction is circling again in a revivified but equally baroque context.

Karen Justl is battling with the conundrum of the physical bind that is inseparable from the social bind which includes language. She fights it with an interplay of the excessive and the spare. This is the most complex and essential of battles.

p 61 articulation: to speak fluently and coherently (of sound or speech) 2. having clearly distinguishable parts. 3. having joints.


Susan Chafe is a Winnipeg based interdisciplinary artist whose work includes independent and collaborative productions. Susan is also the co-ordinator of the Lives of Dogs Artists’ Book Collective.