Pictures and words have had an interesting relationship since they combined to form the earliest pictographic writing system thousands of years ago.
And long after the Phoenicians split them apart with the first phonemic alphabet in 1050 B.C., artists are still exploring ways to put them back together.
That's the idea behind the images and objects found in "WORD: Artworks Including, Inspired by or Relating to the Written Word," which runs through July 7 at the Charles H. Taylor Arts Center.
Curated by gallery manager James Warwick Jones and Newport News artist Jane Vaughan, it ranges from handmade books, posters, cartoons and comic books to drawings, paintings and sculptures that incorporate language. And even when they combine pictures and words in ways that defy description, it's clear that melding the two gives these works an added dimension.
Just take a look at Hampton artist Gary McIntyre's deceptively straightforward "Northern Pike," which uses a stenciled label and a sign painter's flowing hand to embellish a shimmering, almost wet-looking portrait of a handsome game fish.
Reverse painted on glass, the green scales and gold fins of this luscious likeness are made even more intense by the screaming red background. But it's the 28 words from a fisherman's guide that pull your head as well as your eyes into this engaging picture.
"Incomparable excitement" and "lunging fish" are just some of the phrases McIntyre uses to evoke the Northern Pike's charms as an angler's favorite target. And what they make you do is return to the portrait again and again, studying the eyes, the slant of the head, the tooth-filled jaw and the long powerful body for clues that confirm this description of its character.
As you look, moreover, the likeness becomes an admiring homage as well as trophy, testifying to the nobility of the pike as well as any fisherman who has the stuff it takes to catch one.
Die-hard skeptics may detect some irony here — and you can approach the image as a kind of microscope under which to examine the cult of exaggeration that's so much a part of fishing culture.
But I walked away with little doubt that the Northern Pike is one catch you can be proud of.
As important as words are to the impact of McIntyre's painting, it's their absence that makes you stop and ponder over two well-stuffed Rolodex files that have been skillfully repurposed by Hampton artist Christi Harris.
Though card after card juts purposefully from the spindles of these devices, almost every type of information that should be supplied by numbers and words has been replaced with pictures.
The images that result are both decorative and documentary at first, including collage-like depictions of flowers, a red-headed young woman enjoying a bath and two little boys beaming at an old chair and a postage cancellation.
But look at these pictographs long enough and they become increasingly curious, coupling images of things that we quickly recognize with fleeting or elusive meanings.
Indeed, exactly what they signify is left tantalizingly unclear. But they do transport you back to a time when being literate meant the ability to decode pictures strung together in the form of a phrase or sentence.
Among the many other rewarding works in this show is Newport News artist Karen Freidt's "Play on Words," which uses a jumbled splash of letters and a garble of overlapping but mostly disconnected pictures and symbols to underscore the difficulties of communicating through language.
"They struggle to share thoughts too complex to convey," Freidt laments in an accompanying poem.
"We should never rely on what words alone can say."
Don't miss Newport News photographer Craig Hyman's unexpectedly fresh take on some iconic images and slogans from the 1960s.
"Keep Calm and Rock On," reads a passage of text painted across an archetypal VW micro bus, while an aging hipster complete with beard and Jimi Hendrix T-shirt stands in front, tallying up the values of the Woodstock Generation with a series of hand-scrawled flash cards.
Find more visual art stories at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
"WORD: Artworks Including, Inspired by or Relating to the Written Word"
Where: Charles H. Taylor Arts Center, 4205 Victoria Blvd., Hampton
When: Through July 7
Info: 757-727-1490; http://www.hamptonarts.net
Online: Go to dailypress.com/wordartworks to see a gallery of works from the exhibit.