As I am in the midst of a fallow period of making art, it seems a good time to pursue in earnest a book project that I have been thinking about for some time. It is very tentatively titled “WORD AND IMAGE”. In this book I will look at how writing or text, language, books, and book forms, intersect with my other methods of making art. I have decided to approach the book by organizing my thoughts in a series of blog posts.
As I look over years of work, I am surprised at how often the visual art and the written word are connected. And as I begin to analyze and choose the pieces to include in the book questions arise. What was the impetus for each piece? Does the work relate not only to aspects of my personal life but to the culture of the time? There is a kind of timeline which follows my life as an artist, but also, unexpectedly, as a writer as well. The book gives me the opportunity to see the larger picture of the journey as both visual artist and writer.
Some of the works I have decided to include in the book have appeared on this blog in the past, beginning with what I believe is the one of the first combining text and image, “The Male Audience”, 1980. (see “Works On Paper: A Feminist Aspect”).
THE MALE AUDIENCE 1980 Colored pencil, collage on Xerox text 8.5 x 11 inches
This piece reflects time and place in society at large and in my own personal life. I was in the midst of my last year of returning to school as a “mature” student to finish my undergraduate degree. It had to be in teaching. No studio specialty existed. It was a time of ferment, especially among female students. We were influenced and mentored by great faculty who brought to our small-town school people like Miriam Schapiro, exhibits from New York by people like the Conceptual artist Arakawa, a show of watercolors by “the” Turner, and more. It was a fortuitous gathering and an exciting environment in which we were encouraged to break out of old thinking and explore ideas that were happening in the faraway realm of “real art” in places like New York.
That year had a profound influence on my future as an artist and this influence is reflected in “The Male Audience”, created a few years later in 1980.
The text is from spirited feminist writing published in a 1975 journal about the value of women and women’s work in the arts in contemporary time as well as in history. The collaged figure is from a page in a Playboy magazine, commonly found in the Seventies and Eighties. Figures from this magazine provided me with collage and template material for figurative drawings and works on paper that expressed my feminist interests as I struggled to find my way as an artist.
The text in “The Male Audience” is meant to be read. The image of the woman calls up the male point of view, one that seems not to have changed much since the naked female picnicked among fully-clothed male artists in the famous Nineteenth-Century painting by Manet, “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe”.
As mentioned in the earlier post on this piece, using a collaged image taken from a realistic photograph printed in Playboy serves the work better than if I had used one of my own figurative drawings. Knowing the source as a magazine that objectified the female body supports more succinctly my intention for this piece.
THREEFOLD 1980 colored pencil on folded paper 14 x 12 5/8 inches
A drawing which remains in my own collection is titled “Threefold”. It was done in 1980 as part of a series of folded paper pieces with impressions made by marking heavily on a separate sheet of paper on top of the intended drawing and then rubbing with soft pencil to make the lines emerge. I don’t remember the motivation to begin the series of drawings of which “Threefold” was one or why I decided to abandon figurative work. But I do remember that in childhood I was fascinated by discovering I could make “magic writing” appear by rubbing a pencil over the impression left on a sheet of paper beneath one upon which a message had been written. So perhaps that childhood experience, lodged deep in memory, forgotten even as it emerged in the art, was the inspiration for the method used in “Threefold”.
Another childhood experience, this by my four-year old son, could also be designated as having some influence in the creation of the series of “magic writing” pieces. Kevin was in the university library with me in 1974 as I studied. I gave him a notebook page and pencil so he could “write” as well.
The child’s imitative marks try to capture the act of writing but of course cannot convey a meaning. Years after making it I am amazed at how similar the marks in “Threefold” of 1980 are to the child’s “writing”. In “Threefold” the marks are intentionally meaningless. The “writing” is seen as object instead of understandable text.
Recently have I learned that “writing” or marks such as those in “Threefold” may be described as “Asemic writing”, or one with no semantic meaning. Asemic writing can span the practices of both visual art and writing. It can be done by children, as in my son’s “pretend writing”, as calligraphy, as code, or decorative marks. Perhaps we can assign the name to work by painters such as Cy Twombly or Jackson Pollack and others whose work is reminiscent of handwriting or captures the gestures of the hand in writing.
I remember also my interest in texts written in a language of which I have no understanding. To observe a Persian love poem or a lovely Chinese scroll or ancient clay tablets inscribed with a long-lost language remains mysterious and beautiful to me. A book page written in an incomprehensible language removes the words from literature to something else entirely. With no reference to meaning, what is found is simply pattern, or perhaps the illusion of secret messages. The viewer can only bring association to such images in much the same way that one would with abstract art of any kind.
As I always have considered myself a visual artist it was a great surprise to find myself beginning to write poems in the mid-Seventies. This was begun quite spontaneously and without forethought. I took that opportunity and continued to write. The writing continued for more than twenty years, up to about the time when a new challenge presented itself, what became “The Threads Project”.
A poem written in the Eighties seems now to provide some insight and a link from the writing to the visual images I was making, beginning in the late Seventies, into the Eighties. It was then that I became immersed in dreams and the metaphysical. This poem seemed to transport me to a place out of time.
I remember airless rooms
Where letters grow
From falling sand
As sturdy as the Pyramids.
I touch dry pages
And from ancient blood
Spring the sounds
Of sheaves long-stacked
There, on smoke-etched walls,
I see the dance,
The scripture of desire.
On faintest silk I recall
A blossom’s clear repose,
The unadorned and lucid word.
What delight is found in warm red wax,
Inviting the memory of lovers lost,
Their sweet despair.
The scent, heavy now,
Gathers in this dark-
The ashen breath of branded oaks,
The perfume of the sky.
How chaste the message of the sea.
Foamy fingers clutch at sand forever smooth.
Remember most wise scratches of the child.
They are the Myth of Innocence retold.