My sister used to tell me that “whatever you put into your head, must eventually come out.” She was speaking of exposing oneself to questionable cultural experiences, such as watching violent movies and placing oneself in unsafe places. These things, she had figured, would eventually emerge as we interacted with the world. However, as I grow older, I think this statement applies more and more to the artworks to which I find myself drawn: drafts and sketches of ideas as they are forming, usually founded on earlier works and other art forms.
This morning, as I reviewed the paintings on which I worked last night, I was remembering Robert Smithson’s sketches and notes (included in the first major retrospective of his art held at MOCA/California in 2004). There is an essay in that catalogue (written by Alexander Alberro) that focuses on Smithson’s library, including his records and ephemeral collections. Alberro explains that the artist’s library, whether it was all consumed by the artist or not, “provides a glimpse of his cultural landscape.” Smithson’s library and his archive allow us to view an artist always in the making, always becoming, a synthesis of the work he put into his head.
Smithson’s “strong affinity toward modernist literature” and his voracious appetite for books of all types are see in his ideas and finalized artworks. From asphalt pours to partially buried woodsheds to the Spiral Jetty, it is easy to see the texts of biological, spiritual, historical origins next to texts of more aesthetic theory.
Last night, as Anna and I discussed these ideas, I brought up the synthesis of what created the “smoke painting” in our living room. I shared that I saw an article as a middle school student that detailed the start of the long cleaning/restoration of the Sistine Chapel murals created by Michelangelo. The authors (long forgotten if I ever knew) explained that hundreds of years of candles and atmospheric changes caused the dark residue that made the ceiling’s colors dark and rich. A few years later, I had seen images of burned paper used in artworks. It made me excited to see how non-traditional tools could change a work or create something completely new. I had started working with matches and watercolor paper in the mid-90s but became bored with the technique after a few years. I had exhausted the use of negative space to present superficial shapes of things in front of the residue and painting/writing within the smoke composition.
When we moved into the home where we currently live, I decided to create a canvas that just captured the residue…but also worked with the framing, the sense of depth and movement, and worked as a finalized concept. The result felt right finally. It only took 15-20 years of sketches, trials, and inexplicably “unfinished” works.
Over the last 8 years, I have increasingly become more inspired with text as a visual compositional element of paintings and more ephemeral works, such as the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art performance realized in 2010. That performance included 8 musicians or readers that performed a lightly composed/mostly improvised piece I titled Unrecognizable Beauty (after a line in Franz Wright’s early poetry and with his permission). The words derived from influences (Artaud, for example) and my own poems dedicated to Anna. Without fellow artists and collaborators (Clark Lunberry, Pat Greene, SLOTT, Jamison Williams, and Anna), this work would have inevitably failed. With prerecorded samples of the read pieces played and integrated with the live recording/processing of readings, the number of voices and the depth of the sound grew.
“Unrecognizable Beauty” (2010)- Video from this event- https://vimeo.com/10778058
Very near this event, I decided to create a visual artwork that collected more text and visually dynamic interplay. The resulting piece, the subject of a Draft: The Journal of Process interview (found here), was the first attempt at this culmination. Although not my text (e.e. cummings, 1919 Dial Poems, which I shared with Anna during our courtship), I felt like the work captured the expression of making a mark on history, a violent swell of paint thrown over the visual grid of organized text.
Dial Poems (1919) as canvas.
Now, I find myself revisiting my own poems (written and revised/ marked up on the printed pages) as new compositional pieces that can be organized to create a whole. The pieces are being affixed and painted on/over and sometimes texturally buried (or “partially buried” like Smithson’s woodshed). They seem to either be unfinished or complete in their minor organization and treatment. This wouldn’t be completely out of place for me, as my library includes several examples of this negation-as-art aesthetic. In visual arts, I have Ana Mendieta, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Antoni Tapies (all hugely influential on my aesthetic development). There are books by Ronald Johnson (Radios, the erasure poems composed of Milton’s Paradise Lost), Jen Bervin’s Nets (poems composed by the erasure of sonnets by Shakespeare), and Mary Ruefle’s work. Musical examples include Taku Sugimoto (guitar or absence of guitar), Keith Rowe (ditto plus radio), and Axel Dorner’s solo trumpet (think air compressor and static). I have spent years putting this stuff and an innumerable examples of this type of work in my head, and it was bound to become synthesized and emerge in the things I create.
Maybe, I am carefully reworking the writing I’ve completed over a number of years and undergoing a kind of redaction of my language. I am not completely certain of everything that is happening in my poetry or in any other art I create. Partly, the art is about the process of figuring it all out. As I change, these creations seem to change. They become memories that have been obscured over time or viewed through a partially blurred lens.