Over the last decade text has forced its way into visual art with a frequency not seen since medieval allegorical paintings. The faith contemporary artists put in words is an odd development in an age of troubling illiteracy. For these artists, most of them politically inclined, text fills the gaps on what viewers might have missed from the visuals alone, reducing art to its most literal meaning. For those who use words to obfuscate, like the legions of artists who fill canvases with non sequiturs, written language becomes a mysterious symbol, like Masonic signs to the uninitiated. At its worst, the use of text brutalizes both the viewer and the artist, since it allows neither to complete, or completely experience, the work of art at hand. It is the artist saying either he is too inept to communicate or the viewer is too dumb to understand. From either point of view, words on a canvas are a desperate act.

Clearly, both artists and viewers need help. To the rescue comes WhiteWalls, a Chicago-based journal that for the past 14 years has devoted itself to showcasing the best examples of text and image. The magazine bills itself as “a journal of language and art,” taking both very seriously. The editors, a committee of local artists and writers led by art critic Susan Snodgrass, have a keen eye for hybrid art that combines visual and verbal poetry. They also have a talent for picking contributors on the cusp of big careers. Jenny Holzer, perhaps the best known of all text artists, made an early appearance, as did Chicagoan Inigo Manglano-Ovalle and Kay Rosen (who currently has a show up at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery). The journal also lures well-known artists, many of whom submit their work for a nominal fee. The artists included in a recent issue ranged from a student at the School of the Art Institute to the famous wrapper and fence builder Christo.

WhiteWalls is also one of a handful of magazines devoted to capturing performance art in print. The editors invite performers to create new works for the magazine, combining words and pictures that often find their way to stage interpretations. Snodgrass calls performance art “one of our era’s unique expressions.” It is the hybrid art form that combines the aesthetic currents and concerns of today’s creative forces the way opera did in the 18th and 19th centuries. Unlike opera, however, performance art relies solely on the gifts of its creator, without whom the work can’t exist. For the performers who contribute to WhiteWalls, the journal, though an imperfect mirror to performance, is often the only permanent record of their creations.

Like most “little magazines” WhiteWalls has a limited circulation–only 3,000–and back issues that feature the best-known artists are difficult to find. This Friday, however, the triquarterly journal will roll out its inventory at a benefit auction of handmade bookmarks donated by artists from around the country, including Jim Nutt, Hollis Sigler, John Baldessari, Laurie Hogin, and Ed Ruscha.

Snodgrass hopes the fund-raiser will ensure the continued publication of the journal, now that public support for the arts is shrinking. Another pioneering little magazine, Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, eventually left the city for want of local support. Performance artist Brigid Murphy, star of Milly’s Orchid Show, will conduct the auction.

The BookMarks auction starts at 7:30 tonight at the Northern Illinois University Art Gallery, 212 W. Superior, suite 306. A reception precedes it at 5 and continues after the auction. There’s a $10 admission fee. For information call 663-5533.