EMU’s current art exhibit, Non-Text, features an astonishing variety of works by sixteen local and national artists who employ text and type in nontraditional ways. In paintings, drawings, sculptures, and animation, letters and words have been liberated from the flat, prim lines of written language and introduced into striking, non-syntactic contexts. (Curators Brian Spolans and Leslie Atzmon created the title by wedding the words nonsense and context.) The works on display defy a quick read, resist effortless comprehension. The exhibit presents us with a broad exploration into the aesthetic qualities of text and how it can be used to communicate visually, rather than semantically.

In a few of the works, letters of the alphabet have been combined, ordered, and stacked–like the basic building blocks that they are–to create images and structures. “Disfrutelos” (1977), by Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein, is a series of pictures composed of typed letters, symbols, and punctuation marks. With their evocative abstractions and deft balance of spare language and white space, the pictures reminded me of poems. Justin Quinn’s gesso and collage print “Idle Tower” (2011) is a shadowy urban landscape of buildings constructed from the sturdy, brick-shaped capital letter “E.” And typography combines with masonry in Jim Stevens and Ryan Molloy’s “writing wall” (2013), a large wall built from lettered concrete blocks. According to the artists’ statement, these blocks were cast from foam molds cut by a suitcase CNC (computer numeric controlled) milling machine; the artists compare the wall’s fabrication to the composition of a paragraph. The letters on each block proved difficult for me to decipher, however–the type does not use curved lines, only straight–so I stood before the wall, awed but illiterate.

Order gives way to chaos in John Adelman’s “Fardel” (2008), a multilayered stenciling of words and definitions from the 1979 Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary. Systematically overlapped and woven together to form a fabric of letters, the words are almost completely unintelligible. After spending several minutes trying to tease out distinct words, I gave up and gave in to the mesmerizing richness of the work’s accumulated language.

Words are destined for obscurity in Christopher Baker’s notable installation “It’s Been a While Since I Last Wrote” (2008), in which a wall-mounted thermal printer generates the title statement (which is also the first sentence of every LiveJournal blog post I ever wrote) in a casual, handwritten scrawl on receipt paper. The paper travels through two subsequent thermal printers, which proceed to black out the sentence. The process suggests the brief and disembodied lives of digital communications: how a blog post, tweet, status update, or news headline hovers before our awareness for only a few seconds before it is replaced by something else. This installation and so many other works in the exhibit disrupt this incessant stream of content by providing new and unexpected contexts for us to encounter and engage with language.

Non-Text is on display at the EMU University Gallery through December 11. Leave your reading glasses at home. UPDATE: according to a reader, as of December 6, the exhibit had closed.