Written by Tim Griffin, Editor Artforum


Language is a physical thing. You use it every day, mouthing out the words, pushing air up through the body, to the lips, to say something. And what you hear someone say to you has an effect you can feel, even if it's just the result of some off-hand comment. The way a phrase gets said might leave you ecstatic, concerned, confused, or perhaps depressed for the rest of the day. You might end up repeating it to yourself, running over it again and again in your head. Language has impact. It's a physical thing.

And yet precisely because words are so ubiquitous, they're often taken as transparent, as intangible, as being just part of the ambient activity in daily living: things that aren't really things at all. Means, not objects. Gary Gissler's work tunes into this contradiction, giving form to words in his paintings and drawings, and loading words with emotion while making them nearly impossible to read unless you engage language's very physicality. To read Gissler's words is to register a strain on the eyes while reading his delicate script, or appreciate the incredible obsessiveness necessary on the part of the artist in order to produce written words on such microscopic scale.

Gissler also uses an aesthetic vocabulary to match this apparent anonymity in language: His works have all the simple, material and matter-of-fact beauty associated with minimalism. The paintings’ grounds are prepared with dozens of layers of gesso, patiently and purposely sanded by hand, taking on the smooth surfaces of polished stones; impeccable and perfect to the eye. The words tracing across their surfaces might seem, at first glance, abstract fields, smudges, or compositional lines--things barely heard or said or made, made as little psychological seismographs to mark some deep undertow of thought. Some works from Gissler's earlier projects have such lines running uniformly and ubiquitously across their square frames to create what seem to be knit fields of varying tonal shades as the eyes shuttle among them. And yet approach these pieces and look in at the finest detail (much as you might look up-close into Pollock's more expansive canvases to discover the most minute nature of his control), and you'll discover that from these smudged splotches and extending lines emerges language: a meaning buried inside, a semantic language within material language, the human inside the material. The human that is, perhaps, all too human. 

Gissler’s surfaces may be exquisite, and the formal composition delicate or precise, but his language often plays on physical desire.

Gissler's surfaces may be exquisite, and the formal composition delicate or precise, but his language often plays on physical desire. One body of work features phrases that repeat over and over inferring multiple meanings: "you know I need to know," which could be juggled by the eye to read "you know I need" or "I need to know you," showing how the physical placement and reading of words change meaning, and then emotions. Other work, uses clichés and invisibly common phrases linked inextricably together, the minimalist bedrock sometimes hits corporeality head-on, often with the hard core sensuality (and sometimes the humor) of a raunchy rock lyric: "eager beaver shot in the arm pit stop short cut back down and out" or "beam me up too high to talk dirty to you fat fuck in the afternoon."

It's remarkable that something apparently so sweet and unassuming, quiet and relatively spare in its visual gestures, can obtain such real force. But Gissler uses language as a poet, knowing its basic ties to material.  And emotions. "Through every human being, unique space, intimate space, opens up to the world," Rilke writes. So it is that Gissler - in these small intimate artistic spaces that seem nevertheless to open up endlessly — takes the language that gets played inside our own heads and makes it bubble out into the world of physical things, existing at the meeting place of what's thought, said, and felt.