Language is arguably the primum mobile of Cathy Eckdahl’s practice. A prolific artist who early on pursued an interdisciplinary course of artmaking—a model that is common enough these days—Eckdahl is an accomplished painter, sculptor, draftsman, printmaker, weaver and more, constantly experimenting with different materials. Her subjects are equally diverse and her style ranges from the abstract to the representational, all, however, emphasizing the hand-made, the expressive, the individuated. Language has been the recurrent motif in her work but as writing and mark making, as a visual, idiosyncratic mode of expression rather than a coolly conceptual one, such as, say, Lawrence Weiner, whose wall statements are composed from striking but impersonally wrought typographies.

Words first appeared in Eckdahl’s work in 1970 when she was an undergraduate at the Cleveland Institute of Art, evolving over the years into a major obsession. In 1996, while at the Ragdale Foundation, she created a seminal series of 100 works, letters—scaled to about three times the size of standard correspondence and fictive in nature--that functioned as a kind of abstract portrait, each with its own personality. By then, she had disentangled form and meaning, and eventually, through her “pseudo-languages,” relied increasingly on connotation rather than denotation. For Eckdahl, the connotations were visual and led to the psychological through the expressive. Inspired by Persian, Indian, Chinese and Japanese calligraphy as seen in illuminated manuscripts, books, murals and textiles as well as by the pictograms and ideograms of ancient cultures, contemporary graffiti and other systems of language, Eckdahl began to merge real words and fragments of words with invented formulations, observing that viewers are often more easily drawn into a work of art if language is present. However, entranced by language’s visuality, reveling in its formal manifestations--rhythm, gesture, line, mark, shape, texture, light, dark, sometimes color, more often black and white—Eckdahl, through a synthesis of linguistic form and content, strives for deeper meaning, one that exceeds the simply rational.

Some of her recent work—exhilarating, visually rich, black and white, all-over compositions—conjure Kufic script as well as Chinese characters, Hebrew and the Cyrillic alphabet, a fusion of East and West that reflects our transcultural era and its hybridized exchanges. With their dense, constellated surfaces, Eckdahl’s open-ended “writings” are in the tradition of, for instance, Mark Tobey and Henri Michaux merged with more recent artists such as the Brazilian Mira Schendel and Chinese artists Xu Bing and Wenda Gu, all of whom challenge conventional interpretations of what constitutes language and meaning.

Essay by Lilly Wei, New York-based art critic and independent curator