Minimal Pairs is a series of etchings featuring pairs of beings (usually a marine creature and a type of person) whose names rhyme. In it I explore, in a playful fashion, our human obsession with the idea that we can produce knowledge through taxonomies, encyclopedic listings and classifications. The work looks at painful stereotypes (Goy/Koi as a response to Yid/Squid; Dyke/Pike is another), religious ideals (Darter/Martyr), sexual mores (Scallop/Trollope), cultural icons (Coach/Loach) and simply absurd juxtapositions (Surgeon/Sturgeon). The figures would seem to serve as illustrations of word pairs that share a sound but no meaning, but instead they look at each other blankly, or ignore each other completely. This lends what appears as an illustration a perfectly abstract, non-semantic quality. I enjoy engaging with this additional taxonomic tension between “art” – which is not “supposed” to illustrate anything–and “illustration.”
Printmaking is a tool of both artists and illustrators, and the perfect medium for this project because of its flexibility. I experiment with each proof, adding paint, pencil or ink, or taking off tone by sanding the paper itself. Printmaking is a “serious” process, technically demanding, time-consuming and weighty with history, and I enjoy subverting this seriousness by making prints of quick, caricaturish drawings with rhyming captions, or covering the backgrounds with thick layers of gouache.
I chose to call the series Minimal Pairs because minimal pairs are linguistic classifications whose use can strengthen stereotyping. Minimal pairs are two words that have just one small difference in sound but completely different meanings. ‘Ship’ and ‘Sheep’ are a minimal pair. The minimal pair is a calamity for non-native speakers of English. The difficulty of distinguishing between only slightly different sounds sets apart the native from the non-native speaker, acting as a barrier. As a grammatical artifact rather than a quirk of spoken language, minimal pairs appear as a clash between the similarity of sound and the complete disjunction of object (in the example above: ‘Ship’ and ‘Sheep’). This serves to divert attention from meaning (semantics) to sound (phonetics).
Language is a convention, a general agreement on pairings of sounds and images. It means that the absurd — like the unconscious— is embedded in the very idea of its system. As someone who grew up on Monty Python and the New Yorker, I am tickled by the absurd. As an Anglo who teaches immigrants, and an American who grew up outside of the United States, I am extremely aware of taxonomies and categories that make us outsiders or insiders, foreigners or natives. The absurdity of categorization lies at the heart of this project.