Cell Project Space, London

Art Monthly, Issue 267, Jun 2003

In the beginning was the word, and the word was DOG, and the word was engraved on the name badge of Chris Roase, a trader on the floor of the International Petroleum Exchange, London.

Oliver Hartung's contribution to 'Typeofgravy' is a grid of 16 tightly cropped photographs depicting assorted traders' jackets and name tags from the IPE. Each laminate badge features, in the standard engravers' font, a three-letter code: usually an abbreviated version of the wearer's name. Seen together, an opaque kind of poetry emerges: WAR PAL OUT LAW. Like an illiterate fridge-magnet poetry set, Hartung's work suggests that meaningful sentences can be cobbled together, but it is difficul... and not really the point. In fact, most of the interest in this work lies outside of the texts: in the colours of the badges and the jackets, which have rigidly defined meanings. Hartung's work sets the tone for the rest of the show. It starts out concentrating on the forced neutrality of typeface and text, but ends up being more concerned with a variety of obscure visual codes, languages and narratives.

Typography, as you might have guessed from its title, is what this show is about. As you might also have guessed from its title, it doesn't take the subject too seriously, gathering together half a dozen artists who include text in their work. Generally the words that crop up in the artworks are fairly meaningless: either found texts or slogans that might as well have been found. One particular exception to this is Bob & Roberta Smith's collection of six topical, politically blunt paintings, including CLAIRE SHORT IS A TRAITOR and TONY BLAIR IS A ZOMBIE OF DEATH. Written in Smith's trademark sign-writers' style on junk - chipboard mostly, but PETER HAIN IS A SHIT is daubed on an old boiler cover - the paintings carry a slightly unhinged urgency that is refreshingly out of kilter with the coolness of the other works in the show.

This coolness is nowhere more extreme than in Liam Gillick's three slick digital printouts, the most intriguing of which describes a possible ending to an unrealised Stanley Kubrick film. The fragment of text is printed in cyan and, inverted, in yellow: a kind of concrete poetry for European ad-agency executives. But the richness in Gillick's work has always been his interweaving of narratives and the open-ended nature of his projects. For example, of the three prints here, two were intended as posters while the other was made for a shopping bag, allowing the projects to escape out of the gallery and onto the street. These printouts feel like the fragments that they undoubtedly are - and leave us tantalised, but little more.

Simon Patterson also dips meaningfully into found narratives, and here borrows a familiar form for his work: Wheel of Fortune takes the shape of a school blackboard. Rolled up at the top of the board is a roll-down world map. Chalked onto the board is a 6 x 24 grid, with the title 'Wheel of fortune: curious deaths of some Burmese kings'. An oblong shape is repeated across the diagram - the stop-motion flight of a tossed coin, perhaps? Eight of the shapes are labelled with a date, a king and his fate. The first label reads '931AD, Theinko, Killed by a farmer whose cucumbers he ate without permission'; the final label, '1559, Nandabayin, Laughed to death when informed, by a visiting Italian merchant, that Venice was a free state without a king'. The others are equally bizarre, and often involve livestock. Usually elephants.

Patterson's pedagogical presentation suggests that this information is 1, true; and 2, important. In a time of data overload, information squabbles for validity and design is a key, if spurious, bestower of authority. This is the premise of the exhibition, and something that Patterson continually plays with in his work. Yet his practice is also much more than this, because the information that he digs up is so mysterious, and the visual codes that he interleaves are so sophisticated.

A much simpler work is Paul O'Neill's Promise, a circle of white text on a black wall. The text is written in a heavy gothic script that makes reading difficult, especially when the spaces between the words have been squeezed out. It says 'todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday' - a fine T-shirt slogan or album title. But the words themselves are secondary, the real point being the black-hearted circularity of the enterprise, something that also marks O'Neill's other work, no. This is a neon 'no vacancies' sign dumped on its end in the corner of a corridor. The 'no' continually flashes on and off. Is there a vacancy or not? Is there even a hotel? Well, yes there is, in Düsseldorf. This is the title of Giles Round's sign, which is made up of black wooden cubes and says 'HOTEL' on its four vertical sides. In this case the text is actually important ... the text of the title that is; 'Düsseldorf' shifts the work from a formalist proposition to a personal narrative, as if the sign is taken from memory. This tactic crops up again in Round's other work, Someday (for Penny Jo). Here the word 'SOMEDAY' sits on the floor in front of an angle-poise lamp. The word is spelled out in raw MDF, with a string of rope lights running through its interior. Coloured acetate on its back gives a faint multicoloured halo behind, while the text spills a dramatic shadow to the front. 'HOPELESS ENDS AND ENDLESS HOPES' is written in large, scruffy brushwork on the backdrop wall.

Both of Round's works are whimsical and private. But these twee qualities are married to cinematic visual effects and intriguing construction. As a pair, they leave you wanting more. And wanting more is how a show like this should leave you. While the exhibition's stated aims are remarkably precise and not especially novel, the curator, Richard Priestley, has brought together a range of works that head off in their own directions. In reeling in a major new work by a former Turner Prize nominee and unearthing a couple of gems from a recent graduate, Priestley has managed to put together exactly the kind of playful exhibition that you would hope to find in a project space funded by an East End studio block.

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