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Translators and Alchemists

On the “Interpretive Style” in American Art

ISSUE:  Winter 2022

Illustration by Rachel Levit-RuizAs a bookish child in the Pennsylvania suburbs, I won the school spelling bee without quite meaning to, startled and delighted to hear an adult with a microphone intoning aloud words I’d only read in books—it’s mis-led, not mizzled?—as though seeing in color for the first time. For my pains I was given a copy of Paideia, the workbook that formerly accompanied the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and told to start studying for regionals. (For the record, I never made it further than the state bee.) 

Until recently, I assumed a paideia meant a vocabulary book, but in fact it refers to the ancient Greek approach to raising a (male, unenslaved) citizen: creating a “broad, enlightened, mature outlook, harmoniously combined with maximum cultural development.” A lot to saddle spelling with. I don’t believe that orthography and maturity run on parallel tracks, but I’m drawn to the idea that words populate a verbal landscape in the way that citizens (and other guests and residents) populate a country, and that mingling among words in their motley variety is one mode of becoming an adult participant in society.

In New York City, where I now live, half of all city dwellers speak a language other than English at home, and nearly a quarter are designated as having “limited English proficiency,” according to the Department of City Planning Language Access Plan from 2021. The city’s lexical wealth is often felt precisely where the seepage of spillover capital from downtown Manhattan’s financial sector finally starts to ebb and sputter out. By some counts, around eight hundred languages survive here, making it arguably the most linguistically diverse city in the world.

Because of this, I often find myself wheeling an iPad on a telescoping stand to and from patient rooms as I make my way around the hospital ward where I work. Like most hospitals, ours decided that keeping a full-time staff of interpreters made poor financial sense, so almost all the work is done through a third-party company that connects me by video chat to a fleet of interpreters wearing matching polos and sitting in front of bright-blue backgrounds. Cycling through all these two-dimensional strangers, their faces and voices sometimes decoupled by connection delays, sounds depressing—and sometimes it is. 

Other times, though, I’ve worked with the same interpreter so often that I recognize her particular bashfulness when asking me to rephrase something I’ve said in overly slangy English, or his infuriating way of crinkling what sounds like a king-size candy-bar wrapper somewhere off-screen—a nervous habit, I imagine, though I also have no idea what time it is where he lives, or when was the last time he was liberated from his headset to stretch and make himself a snack. Some interpreters introduce themselves by both their name in their native language and a phonetically similar name they use in English. At times, the latter is a name rarely given to anglophone babies, like Eros or Symphony. I like it that someone who has to wear a logoed company polo all day can still introduce herself as Eros if she feels like it. I like it, grudgingly, that Symphony sneaks cacophonic snacks to his desk in violation of corporate policy.

I park the iPad stand as close to the patient’s head as possible and the interpreter explains to the patient what’s about to happen. Sometimes delirious or very elderly patients don’t understand that the figure on the screen is talking to them, instead treating the interpreter’s burble as another sociable form of white noise, like the cable news murmuring on the room’s mounted television. Other times, patients seem to assume that the tiny on-screen figure is the real doctor, stranded far from the hospital or perhaps even stuck inside a digital box, while I, the white-coated figure physically present, am more like a ferryman or a stagehand, wheeling the helpless minuscule doctor around.

But most times, we can get down to work. Even at its best and smoothest, built into the function of translation is a massive amount of waiting. A patient says several sentences to me in Russian, and until the interpreter begins, I still have no idea what’s going on, yet I know my face is already being read. While the interpreter translates my own words back to the patient, I reflexively nod and smile, as though to imply that what the interpreter—that is, what the doctor—that is, what I—have been saying is infinitely important and true. It’s too hard merely to wait, though that, of course, is precisely what we ought to do, letting the translation carry us across—the literal meaning of the term’s etymological origin, translātiō—without too much fuss and rocking from the cargo bay.

Less a melting pot than an arcade’s claw crane, with heaps of distinct, bright visions that too easily elude capture, the American-art scene reproduces on its own terms the linguistic busyness, the interpretation, the slippage, that marks a nation full of translation and mistranslation. While I feel small and overly confined by my mostly monolingual life—unlike many or even most people on Earth, I face little economic or political penalty for carrying on in just the one language I learned as a baby—a voyage through what I might call the interpretive style in American art can set me aright. Like Melville’s Ishmael getting on the first ship that’ll take him, “it is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.” 

By interpretive style, I mean the practice of making art that’s inextricable from the artist’s awareness of carrying something over from a different idiom, medium, or place. Chance and the unconscious may figure in to how a piece actually turns out, but the artist knows very well that she’s stepping between worlds. I think Winslow Homer must have felt this carrying over when he first started painting seascapes and realized that the way he’d caught the landlocked world before—people hip-deep or shoulder-high in grain as they reap, or buried in trees to evade detection in the Civil War—could be transported onto the sea, giving it solidity and fertility, where more-conventional painters had treated it as a simple horizon mark, or as just a very large quantity of water.

I think Trisha Brown must have felt this carrying over when, toward the end of her career as a choreographer and dancer, she began creating large works on paper made by dancing, rolling, and skidding over sheets while holding pastels or graphite between her toes and fingers. What had been implicit or figurative about the dancing quality of visual artmaking—resonant in iconic cultural artifacts like Hans Namuth’s famous film of Jackson Pollock’s “action painting”—became explicitly a work of bilingual mélange. Brown was a dancer, dancing; she was a draftsperson, drawing—each language had its syntactical peculiarities, but could be made to meet.

Walking away from the hospital at shift’s end, my rolling iPad and its interpreters set aside for the day, I went to see Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s exhibition Mask / Conceal / Carry at the 52 Walker gallery in Manhattan. McClodden, a forty-one-year-old interdisciplinary artist in Philadelphia, created the pieces in Mask / Conceal / Carry as part of a reckoning with her own attraction to, and growing proficiency in, the use and ownership of guns. As she has written and spoken about elsewhere, McClodden first gravitated toward guns when violence within Philadelphia—and, more broadly, growing awareness of anti-Black violence by police and others around the country—made her fear for her own safety. Then, as someone on the autism spectrum, she found that target practice and the rituals of the shooting range provided ways to work through sensory overload. Slowly, these practices percolated into the paintings, video installations, and sculptures that became the show now on view.

The most arresting element of the show is a series of paintings derived from “dry firing,” that is, shooting a firearm without ammunition. The laser sights guiding McClodden’s aim produce corresponding jagged loops of paint on canvas. The results look not unlike the scribbled passages in a Cy Twombly mural, riffing on the fall of ancient empires and indeed resemble some of the aforementioned Trisha Brown dance paintings in which the body in motion has been turned into a projectile brush. Here, as in Brown’s work, a full-bodied practice in an entirely other discipline—dancing, shooting—has been translated into something that painting can accommodate and visual-art galleries can assimilate.

These dry-firing paintings on black canvases yield quite beautiful abstractions: dramatic, kinetic lines that home in on something the viewer cannot see or ethically evaluate. Who or what was the target that the shooter/painter was looking at or imagining? Impossible to judge, so we are able—just barely—to settle into a level of purely aesthetic pleasure, watching how the painter’s line creates little corrals and eddies of attention and stillness before darting again into motion.

By contrast, another corner of the exhibition is a video installation that uses the same dry-firing technique—lines and squiggles in bright colors that trace where a gun was aimed—but instead of an austere canvas, the backdrop now is a cycle of various stock images actually used in target practice at gun ranges. We see a blond-haired woman in a snug floral-decaled T-shirt and acid-washed jeans, her expression somewhere between a grimace and a jeer as she points a handgun at the viewer. The X suggests her mid-forehead as the ideal target. Then there’s a balding middle-aged white man at what appears to be a liquor store aiming his gun at us, while a terrified sales clerk gapes wide-eyed behind him. The white X is placed just beside his sternum. A dog, possibly a Doberman, menaces the viewer with jaws open while ears and lips strain backward. An X targets the heart side of his chest, a few inches below its chain collar. A man with features difficult to stereotype racially, immediately—perhaps he is Asian, perhaps he is Hispanic—stands with his back to us. In a white T-shirt and close-fitting jeans, he looks a bit like Bruce Springsteen on the album cover of Born in the U.S.A., except that a handgun peeps out from behind his torso. The X directs the shooter to aim at the top of his thoracic spine. 

Superimposed on each of these images and many more, we see the bright contrails of McClodden’s efforts to hit the target. Over time, we recognize characteristic opening strokes, fierce diagonals, tighter loops of revision—the draftsmanship of the shooter—perhaps as uniquely traceable in their mannerisms as Bronzino’s way of articulating fingers or Philip Guston’s way of painting shoes.

I don’t feel comfortable in the exhibition. I think vastly fewer guns, fewer gun owners, and fewer images of and related to guns would be an excellent restoration of sanity to the country that I live in, and I don’t think that people who also happen to be artists are necessarily more likely to be more prudent or appropriate gun owners than anyone else. On some level, I would like McClodden’s guns to be taken away from her, and from just about everyone else as well.

But my comfort is not the point, nor is whether I “agree” with the artist about her practices in or outside the studio. (Funny, when I look at, say, a Helen Frankenthaler painting, I don’t generally think to myself whether I “agree” with the shade of coral she chose, but somehow when the materials, methodology, and subject matter of a painting all converge around one of the most heated topics in American politics, it feels as though attending a gallery is to be handed a ballot and asked to register one’s consent or dissent.) I’m glad to see work that calls to mind one of the major drivers of death and harm in the United States while still managing to dodge didacticism and pedantry, and while positioning the artist not as virtuous guide but as unreliable narrator. The deliberate amorality of these “blanks”—gunshots that lack projectiles, exhibitions that decline to impose a specific interpretive lens—calls to mind the amorality of both skill and beauty in themselves, which acquire good or evil properties through use and context.

I continue my walk uptown, thinking about the text that McClodden wrote for Mask / Conceal / Carry, “I Don’t Believe in Trigger Warnings Anymore.” “The trigger warning has become a fetish based on the desire to disturb and be disturbed simultaneously,” she begins. That McClodden uses work generated by and with guns and their paraphernalia forces us to reverse engineer the dead metaphor inside the idea of the trigger warning, to reliteralize it to the concrete world. By telling someone that they may be “triggered” by what’s to come, such warnings are, in essence, saying that the addressee is at risk of becoming an object or instrument—a gun—rather than a subject who thinks and decides. 

Whether we accept this conception of the individual—as someone who might, upon encountering traumatic material, become acted-on rather than agent, become thinglike—might predict whether we feel at ease around art that translates freely from one oral or visual or cultural language to another. When we welcome translation, when we allow or even seek out art that brings tidings from other floors in the Tower of Babel, from idioms we would not normally hear or understand without the aid of an interpreter, we put ourselves at risk. At risk of taking pleasure in what is “bad,” of feeling shame about the insufficient pleasure we receive from what is “good,” of feeling bored or delighted by things we think ought to provoke the opposite response. At risk of being intrigued by something we’re not supposed to, such as art that shoots in the back.

At first glance, my arrival at the Morgan Library’s exhibition of drawings by Rick Barton, Writing a Chrysanthemum, appears to land me lightyears from McClodden’s work. Where the prior gallery had been dimly lit and brooding, explicitly interested in naming and perhaps provoking menace, the retrospective show by California-based Barton (1928–92) shows a life concerned with the hedonism of documentation, a ravenous and sensual appetite for jotting down who and what’s around.

Barton, a somewhat reclusive figure known mostly to his small circle of friends and admirers in the queer and independent-publication scene of midcentury San Francisco, is believed to have adopted his characteristic style of lyrical, sinuous, perspective-defying works in ink when he encountered East Asian art as a merchant marine in China in the 1940s.

In between and sometimes during bouts of incarceration—opium, another acquired practice from the merchant marines and time abroad, brought him into frequent collision with the law and perhaps contributed to his isolation—Barton made hundreds of works on ink and paper. These often depict bedrooms, apartment interiors, and cafés; the beautiful or striking people inside them; and the vast array of quotidian objects that keeps these worlds afloat and their inhabitants comfortable. Beds need mattresses; mattresses need springs and ticking and buttons; people in cafés need coats, hats, watches, and seem to require a fleet of cups, saucers, silverware, and salt and pepper shakers at all times. 

His world is a busier and more gregarious place than the one we know, though not because the people in it interact—they rarely seem to, except in silent display, like peacocks—but because each object has so many parts, seams, folds, zips, hinges, or buttons, all of which blink out at the viewer and toward each other like the flashing signals of an airport at night. This is most apparent in Barton’s incredible leporello-style drawings. A leporello is one long work of visual art separated by accordion folds so that a café scene, for example, takes place over many feet of paper, making us linger over one bit at a time with no fixed center governing the compositional whole.

Barton’s technique of giving every kind of solid surface equal weight and consideration with his brush means that startling and unexpected visual rhymes occur. Because he accords them parallel importance, the nails on a window frame and the flash of a man’s nipples and umbilicus talk to each other, imitate and play with each other. The wrinkle on someone’s unclenched knuckle and the folds on another person’s jacket are like a facing-translation edition of a poem about lassitude. 

This handling of ink—a matter of metacarpal steadiness first, which then becomes a matter of philosophy—points the way toward how translation relates to civic virtues like justice and equality. Depicting two things with evenly meted saturation and rhythm renders them eligible for the same level of attention in the viewer’s eye. We might gravitate to one section of the piece, but this is of our own free will, not because the artist has treated another section as mere backdrop or scaffolding.

This is the opposite of, say, the Baroque art of Europe, in which any number of theatrical nudging techniques accelerate and then brake our gaze like a game of Simon Says. Contemporary American art borrowing from that tradition—any number of painters come to mind, from Alex Katz to Cindy Sherman, not to mention all of Hollywood film—are often locked in a loving hatred, or a hateful love, with the erosive antidemocratic potential of plutocracy. Less-conscious borrowers on the American scene include many so-called “outsider” artists, whose primary form of informal training often derives from the graphic design of advertisements and mass-produced goods. Art of this kind favors > and < over = and prefers the aspirations of alchemy, which moves away from what is “base” toward what is “precious,” over the aspirations of the translator, who moves back and forth between idioms without abandoning or effacing either one.

I am, of course, on the side of the translators over the alchemists. I want more art that ferries us between seemingly indecipherable codes, finding cognates and points of recognition. A recent crop of novels shows how this same impulse manifests in literature as well as in visual art. A couple years ago I read in Italian Claudia Durastanti’s La Straniera (2019), an autobiographically influenced novel that follows a young woman—Italian, hearing—whose family circumstances dictate much of her life in the United States and among deaf people, her ear a permanent alien in both. The nearly untranslatable title literally means the foreigner in English, though opting for that would have lost the wry nod to Camus’s L’Étranger, generally rendered in English as The Stranger. Durastanti and her translator, Elizabeth Harris, went with Strangers I Know, a comical oxymoron, a sign before the book’s even opened that the text within is going to be a pushmi-pullyu negotiation between these affectionately adversarial parties, Italian and English, deaf and hearing. Translation as couples therapy, a tussle in a partnership of equals.

At one point in Strangers I Know, the protagonist remembers how much she loved her first youthful encounters with Kerouac and Fitzgerald through Italian translations that were “careless and riddled with errors.” Later in life people will make fun of those gaffes, she says, but for her there’s something right and true about the imperfections of those texts: The bruises they display show how language “suffers in the migration between different countries, bleeding the same way astronauts bleed when they’ve spent too much time in space and come home to constant nosebleeds in the light of day, back on earth.” This honesty-in-error, like McClodden’s candid translations of violence, or Barton’s egalitarian style of drawing bedsprings like they’re bodies and human faces like they’re furniture, has a rattletrap sincerity I too hold dear. 

Similarly, Lisa Hsiao Chen’s novel, Activities of Daily Living (2022), follows one woman’s obsession with the work made by the Taiwanese-American performance artist Tehching Hsieh, whose stunts run along the ragged edge between art and “real” life, knitting the two together through the translating medium of his body. Chen’s protagonist abhors a world made too smooth, too seamless, even in notoriously rough-hewn and checkered places such as New York City. In both Chen’s novel and in fact, Hsieh’s longest and possibly most arduous projects have been cessations of artmaking itself: the “No Art Piece” of 1985–86, during which he pledged to “not do art, not talk art, not see art, not read art, not go to art gallery and art museum for one year,” and the “13 Years’ Plan,” which consisted of a vow to withdraw all of his art from public life. Tsieh’s other performance pieces (such as locking himself in a cage for a year and leaving himself at the mercy of his friends for food and water, or tying himself to fellow artist Linda Montano for a year), for all their terrifying gusto, pale in comparison with the task of making a perfect translation between art and life, a correspondence so absolute that we no longer perceive ourselves to be switching languages.

Wandering around the city, Chen’s heroine finds herself poring over braille diner menus, running “her fingers across the bumps to feel her illiteracy,” knowing the menus will soon be thrown out when blind patrons come to prefer the smooth voice of a smartphone app. She encounters the spread of whole swaths of urban life that look more like theme-park versions of themselves, too shiny, too concealing of their antecedents, whatever conversation they might have had with the strata of history below their foundations frozen in a rictus of new consumption. What will happen to the American city when we can no longer feel the friction between its competing dialects, when we no longer have cause to stumble over hitches in translation, feeling the subtle changes in terrain where multiple ways of knowing and speaking dapple the texture of daily life?

In galleries and museums, on city blocks and in the semiprivate spaces where people gather (be they the artist’s café or the firing range), the richest and most interesting places in American art and life seem to me to be those where we see the interpreter’s work on candid display, showing us the effort, error, and play that come from plumbing the depths of one idiom and remaking it in a new key.


I think of a patient I once had who spoke a Central Asian language for which no virtual or in-person interpreter was, at the moment, available. While we obeyed the chipper voice on the interpreter hotline entreating us to “please stay on the line,” the patient took my hand in her left hand and ran the tips of my fingers down the length of her torso from clavicle to hipbone. At the same time, with her right hand, she ran a pen over a piece of paper, making a smooth line in time with our movements across her body. When my hand hovered over one of the places where she felt pain, she squeezed it, and made an angry furrowed mark on the page.

By the time we completed—I can’t quite call it an exam, as it was really she who was conducting it, with my hand as just an artist’s tool—the piece of paper was constellated with bristling messages, the smooth arc of health derailed by divots and burrs meant, I think, to map for me the sites and the magnitude of her sickness. All this without a sound.

I wasn’t equal to it—I still, of course, needed the usual cheats of my trade, blood tests and CT scans and a stethoscope in place of a bare hand. But I stood in awe of the visual lexicon she’d made, an improvised work of drawing and dance for two players. And I mourned my inability to interpret it just yet, and I thanked her for bringing me to the brink of a glimmering meaning I could almost see. Even in my incomprehension, the sense of a meaning about to slide into my own language felt like watching some fantastic and freighted ship nosing its way into harbor. 


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