The University Record, April 16, 1996

Visiting professor at School of Art and Design gives a new perspective on 'the art of conversation'

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Language, words and sounds signify conversation to most, but to the hearing impaired conversation takes on a totally different form, and to Joseph Grigely becomes art.

For the hearing, conversation becomes a cacophony of words, a jumble of tones running into each other and overlaid in a verbal network of questions, answers and comments. For Grigely who is deaf, conversation becomes visual, executed with hands, lips, pen or pencil in single, short phrases often with words and phrases overlapping, running into one another, sometimes standing alone. What Grigely does with these written words gives a whole new concept to the phrase "the art of conversation."

Grigely, visiting professor at the School of Art and Design, has collected conversations on bar napkins, scraps of pa per and tablecloths. His conversations range from ordering a pizza where "two of the pieces need to have pepperoni" to "She called me a jerk. I said thanks" and appear in his book, "Figures of Speech," a collection of Grigely's conversations.

The artist has combined these scraps of paper full of conversation with portraits to form groupings. But his portraits are not the conventional head and shoulder variety. They are hands holding pencils and pens.

"I'm looking at hands if they are signing or writing," Grigely says. "I rarely have the opportunity to look at eyes."

Just as a still-life painting tells a story, Grigely's conversations tell stories, too. From his files of notes and drawings, the results of conversation with various people via library cards, note paper, 3 x 5 cards in white and colors, or office note pads, he constructs a grouping that makes one piece of art.

"I like the idea of paper just pinned up and never framed," he says. "As a rule, people don't write until they come into contact with a deaf person. I want to take people somewhere they've never been before."

And that is what his art does; takes the viewer into the midst of silent conversation. He makes language visual.

The conceptual artist and scholar, a faculty member at Gallaudet University's English department, has exhibited his work at the Venice Biennale, the Paris Museum of Modern Art, London's Anthony D'Offay Gallery, and regularly exhibits in New York and Paris, and will be doing installations this summer at the European Biannale in Rotterdam and at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.

Considering his own and other disabilities as simply a continuance of human differences, and "we're all different in our difference," he says, "I'm an artist for whom language is, by default, my medium. My work is about human inter action. It's about how people construct communication, and how in this particular form of communication, a new mode is created in the space between speech and writing."

Among Grigely's most recent publications is "Textualterity: Art, Theory, and Textual Criticism," published by U-M Press.