Literary Extremism by August Highland



The visual art of August Highland is based in language. Every visual/graphic detail comes from text, handwriting, type fonts, letter symbols, or hand-drawn faces and pictures converted into type fonts. Beginning as a writer, Highland found himself more and more constrained by the format of the book page. He felt a need to work with the visual dimension of written language or texts, leading to the large scale of the works on display in the gallery space. These works demand to be viewed rather than read, however, even though they take their formal inspiration from letter shapes, words, phrases, and the linear conventions of print and manuscript culture. Still, these beautiful and intriguing works engage the viewer as a participant by virtue of our habit of deciphering letters as symbols, conferring meanings upon them even if the meanings must remain tentative, as is the case here.

What is a literary text? What is reading? What is visual interpretation? These and similar questions occur to the viewer on regarding Highland's works. Right away meanings begin to emerge as possibilities, showing the mind's need to see pattern and order in the world around us. Are these meanings intended, inferred, unconscious, "in the work or in the mind," made up by the viewer or by the artist? How is semantic and syntactic meaning different from or the same as graphic meaning of a unitary visual symbol?

Because of their size and the "overall" or field quality of the pieces, questions of perspective are also engaged. When viewed from several feet away, the works may suggest a print-like patterning of markings, overlaid to create the illusion of depth. These patterns may then resolve themselves into any of a variety of possible meanings. But if the viewer moves in close, at least in the case of some pieces he or she can detect words or phrases and immediately realizes that something is being "said" through verbal language. How does the content of these messages relate to the manner of their presentation in rows, overlays, fragments, black-white and/or color contrasts, and the like? It is as if what we see is a segment of a field that extends infinitely beyond the image edge, arbitrarily cut off by the frame for presentation in the gallery. Vertically displayed large-scale pieces subtly echo the upright human form but one translated into 21st-century visual language. Much of the tension derives from the contrast between these ancient human conventions (language, symbol-making, manuscript culture) and an impersonal medium removed from the vagaries of the hand. This contrast can be seen in Highland's titles, with their gestures towards computer engineering and technology.

"Text" derives from the Latin "texere," to weave. The columns and rows of letters and words form a textured field of meaning in the creation of a uniquely human cultural object, just as the warp and woof threads of a textile form a uniquely human object for the enhancement of our physical life. Highland's work, for all its technical innovation, maintains many links with ancient cultures. Illuminated manuscripts were hand-painted texts suffused with the beauty of form and color as translated into the physical world by the human hand, which forms a prototype context for Highland's contemporary illuminations.

Earlier in his life the artist immersed himself in the ancient world, learning Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, and others. Along with the experiencing of languages through the medium of the book, Highland absorbed a deep respect for knowledge as mediated through language, recalling the sanctification of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in Talmudic traditions. Each letter symbolizes an aspect of the divine, in this case in a strictly humanized sense in which Highland's word-based visual art conveys to the viewer feelings of awe, ecstasy, and release into his or her own limitlessness. One falls into these visual text fields not with terror but with delight.


Harry Polkinhorn, Ph.D.
Professor, English and Comparative Literature
San Diego State University