A formal printed letter from the Neuropsychiatry Department at the Royal Melbourne Hospital has been proofread with corrections. Accents, carets, carons, ticks, crosses, exclamation marks, and brackets swarm the page. Editing is usually the act of correcting grammatical, factual, and typographical errors for the purpose of enhancing accuracy, readability, and accessibility. Here, in the painting NorthWestern Mental Health (2020), the opposite is true as the edits render the text more obscure and less logical. However, as philosopher Simone Weil asks, ‘unintelligibility, why should it not be the truth?’ corroborated by poet Anne Carson who writes ‘why should the truth not be impossible? Why should the impossible not be true?’
For her latest exhibition ‘me say edit be’ at ReadingRoom, Darcey Bella Arnold has created pairs of personal, contemplative canvases using the writings of her mother, Jennifer, who has an acquired brain injury which has altered her use of language. Arnold has been a carer for Jennifer along with other family members since 2004, and her latest exhibition uses material from 2006 to explore the tensions between the neurotypical and the neurodivergent. Arnold’s paintings gleaned from the pages of Jennifer’s writings may be seen as portraits of Jennifer through her idiosyncratic meticulous handwriting.
Diacritic marks are symbols that are attached to letters, thereby altering a word’s meaning or value. The diacritic mark therefore stands as a symbol in Arnold’s work for the flaccidity of language, privileging new methods of communication and cognition that are created in personal languages. In Journey-ed-it-’s (2019) Jennifer’s long lists of words are concealed by white and red paint that is layered into a palimpsest and reworked revisions are readable on (or indeed under) the surface of the canvas. The usual flatness of reading text has been compromised by the depth created by the layered paint. Acting as a lexicographer, Jennifer’s lists of words are ‘misspelled’ by a neurotypical standard. However, in these errors (or perhaps more accurately disruptions), it is made clear that the standardised, uniform measure of language, presented in a dictionary, contradicts the very subjective and mercurial nature of language.
In we be ed-it! (2019) Jennifer’s words create a vibrant mass of thoughts and the elegantly arched tendrils of sentences extend and unfurl outwards to occupy the marginalia of the painting’s composition. As Carson reminds us, reading and writing teaches us ‘something about edges’ as it is these peripheries that create the meaning of and for words. Linguistic signs are without meaning in themselves, and therefore reading may be understood as purely looking combined with the translation of meaning. By highlighting the textuality and visuality of reading, Arnold deconstructs language itself into its abstract syntax, morphological, and lexical forms.
Jennifer’s preoccupation with marginalia further reveals language’s tenuous relationship with memory. As Carson writes ‘memory is rooted in utterance’ in the cognates ‘I remember’, ‘I mention’, ‘I name’. In many of Arnold’s canvases like Journey-ed-it-’s (2019), editsomed editsomed-ly (2020) and we be ed-it! (2019), the words are faded as if obfuscated by the haziness of memory. There is an ambiguity of whether these words are receding into or out of vision, mimetic of memory and language’s own oscillations, emphasised in a portrait of one of Jennifer’s children Beth (2019). Encouraged in art therapy to paint her children, Beth smiles from the peripheries of Jennifer’s veiled memory, the contours of her face in faint lines and soft colours, simultaneously absent and present.
‘me say edit be’ presents privileged intimacy into Jennifer’s life and memory and these canvases are a landscape of her emotions and thoughts. Arnold tells me in an interview that she is inspired by the Abstract Expressionists and inspiration taken from Agnes Martin is clear to see in the delicate, sensitive lines etched into the white backgrounds of Arnold’s canvases. These markings not only imitate the lines of a writing workbook but like Martin’s own exercises in repetition, encourage introspection and present a systematic patterning of thoughts. Like Martin, who used two-metre square paintings consistently, the large scale of Arnold’s canvases allows the frenetic frenzy of words to engulf the viewer. We are immersed in the linguistic cartography of Jennifer’s idiosyncratic universe and Arnold’s poignant incursion into the meaning of the attempt to understand.
Soo-Min Shim is an arts writer living and working on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land.