(American, b.1953; resides in Chicago, IL)
Inspired by Victor Hugo’s A Hieroglyphic Alphabet and his statement: “Human society, the world, all mankind exists within the alphabet…The Hermetic Alphabet combines photographs I made all over the world, while traveling over a ten year period, with the projectory of a found, three dimensional alphabet. —Judy Natal
As a 2003 artist in residence at Light Work, Judy Natal set out to construct a 26 panel timeline of natural history working from a backlog of unprocessed black-and-white film accumulated over a decade of travel. The Hermetic Alphabet departs from Natal’s documentary interpretations and site-specific installations of other alphabet projects in favor of a darkroom-based approach of combining letters and imagery. Here, using a subtle photogram technique, letter forms are incorporated into compositions during the exposure of the photographic paper, their edges shaded from the height of the object or soft where the letter was moved or pulled away. The pictures allude to organisms of increasing cellular complexity, leading to society, art, and religion before the imagery plunges back into the sea with a scuba diver representing scientific inquiry. The pictures are printed at various sizes, and the letters can be conspicuously present or wholly absent, floating in and out of view through the sequence and lending just enough structure to ground this rumination on progression and accumulation. While a more literal alphabet would end with Z, The Hermetic Alphabet stops at Y, incomplete as any history and with the tension and possibility of anything in progress.
Solo exhibitions of Natal’s work include Neon Boneyard A-Z at Reed Whipple Cultural Center Gallery, Las Vegas; American Alphabet at MN Gallery, Chicago; and EarthWords at California Museum of Photography, Riverside. She has been awarded grants from the City of Chicago Community Arts Assistance Program and the Illinois Arts Council, in addition to residencies at Light Work, Syracuse, NY; Joshua Tree National Park, 29 Palms, CA; and Museum Internacional De Electrografia, Universidad De Castilla-La Mancha, Cuenca, Spain. Neon Boneyard, Las Vegas A-Z, her most recent book, was published in 2006.
Impressive, if not imposing, the hulking signage in Judy Natal’s Neon Boneyard: Las Vegas, A-Z series fills the frame with a kind of bold bravado. Single letters appear as great jutting objects, full words like “Luck” and “Lord” are recontextualized against their glamour, longer phrases have been cropped and interrupted into meaningless forms. Full sun and harsh shadows reject nostalgia or romance, unapologetically rendering the paint weathered and aged into hues of garish orange-red or filthy white. Vertical compositions stretch from hot asphault to burning blue sky, the elements of once monumental displays now resting on the ground in disarray, demonstrating just how far the mighty have fallen. Yet however dated or abandoned, they are nonetheless glorious: proudly artificial and still able to conjur the fun and fantasy suggested by their scale and their subjects.