The Shearsman Review

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Visual Poetics Show, Saison Poetry Library

Reviewed by Jaime Robles
When you walk through the glass doors that mark the boundary of the Saison Poetry Library from the rest of the Southbank Centre in London, immediately to your left is a pocket of the library where the curators David Miller and Chris McCabe have installed their Visual Poetics show. On wall, in plinth and cabinet and on screen, work by over 30 artists, from the seminal to the au courant, is displayed, giving a pithy survey of a little observed and infrequently celebrated art form.
Southbank Centre occupies a 21-acre site on London’s south bank of the Thames, and is the largest single-run arts center in the world. Managed with British archivist thoroughness and with a commitment to a dizzying range of cultural and social interests, the Centre programs thousands of artists working in every performative and visual genre. It’s a bit wonderful that a library for poets has managed to carve out a considerable space for itself on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall, the largest building in the complex. The collection, which belongs to the Arts Council, dates from about 1914 and consists mostly of poetry from the United Kingdom and Ireland, but there are many books from the rest of the Anglophone world, as well as translations. But I’m veering off-topic in my enthusiasm. 
Visual poetry, and especially how Miller and McCabe have conceived it, is a collision of verbal and visual art as it’s practiced by poets (though there are a few participants in the show who could be described primarily as visual artists, rather than poets). I’m making that distinction in order to separate it from the work of, say, Ed Ruscha, who is a visual artist working with words and not a poet working with visuals. Ruscha’s work is characterized by the formal concerns of the visual art world. Even though his single words and sentences are often freighted with a kind of ironic mystery, you can always see the hand of an artist rendering the shapes of the letters. This is not to say that the poets whose visual poetry is concerned with letterforms don’t practice a loving formal attention to the shapes of letters, but I’ll get to that after a paragraph or two. The shapes of letters that Ruscha carefully renders on canvas or paper always undercut the insouciance of the words and phrases that he paints and draws. Further, he is interested in the tension inherent in verbal meaning, but not necessarily in the sounds connected to those words. And this is where he deviates radically from poetry. A visual artist who careens farther over into the world of poetry is Marcel Duchamp. 
I’m thinking now of Duchamp’s 1926 movie Anémic Cinéma. The five minutes-plus movie is of revolving discs, some purely abstract in their vertigo-inducing vortexes. Others are circles of pun-filled sentences that rearrange the meaning in the words by rearranging their letters and therefore their sound. Often the subject is grand, such as beauty. Always the artist’s mode is whimsical and humorous.
But where Ruscha and Duchamp have a fascination for the semantic mutability of words and sentences, many poets are taken by the abstractness of letter forms. Two of the early poets, seminal and permissively influential, in the Visual Poetry show are Dom Sylvester Houédard and Bob Cobbing, both now deceased. A Benedictine monk, Dom Sylvester was a key proponent of concrete poetry. Fastidiously typed on an Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter, his poems have a Russian formalist quality about them, and are often typed in monochrome red, blue or black. These concrete-poetry objects require patience and planning to affix their layered typescript into abstract pattern. And there’s something boogie-woogie about Bob Cobbing’s piece from Gloup and Woup; something boogie-woogie in the way his entire oeuvre swerves from visual to verbal form: the sign of a restlessly experimental mind. Cobbing ventured off into music and sound-field composition as well. The piece in the show is set in a bold italic gothic face, and words are sliced and re-formed over each other into a text grid. They are not entirely readable because they are in a stasis of transformation, caught between one word and another. These two poet artists are poles in a visual/poetic continuum: Dom Sylvester using letters, which while maintaining their integrity as letters and words act as particles in a pointillist painting, and Cobbing addressing the visual abstraction built into the shapes of letters as if it were equivalent to the visual vocabulary of circle, square, line and dot. There’s a whole spectrum of poet artists in the exhibition whose work is strung between these two poetic viewpoints. Giles Goodland’s Hand Made Poem places a vinyl glove charged with a pinkish red liquid over printed text, dividing out the impulses of concrete poetry and re-conflating them with the title’s pun. Alan Halsey handwrites in white on black, the letters and words entwining and coagulating like an alchemical circus of ideas and shapes. And Gavin Selerie’s 'Casement' from Le Fanu’s Ghost, takes on an Alice in Wonderland quality, the shaped poem of a blank square within a text square appearing first as a large 2’ x 3’ framed piece on the wall then shrinking to the 6”x 9” page among the books on display. David Miller’s Untitled (Visual Sonnet) dispenses with letterforms altogether, leaving the sonnet a gestural fourteen lines, as if it were a stack of trigrams brushed in ink by a monk living in the cloud-filled realm of a Chinese screen.
Ian Hamilton Finlay, best known for his language-turned-garden-monument, Little Sparta, takes a different tack, providing a third point from which contemporary visual poets approach their art: Finlay uses the solitary word or phrase and isolates it – in the case of Little Sparta, within a huge garden context – thereby giving it an air of significance as it floats, freed from expected context. In his piece I Love, he takes that charged word, so susceptible to sentimentalism, and pulls it apart, reconstructing it as if it were an Add-A-Letter puzzle. Thomas A. Clark uses this concept of a list of words made fraught with singularity in his An Acre for John Clare. Clark also uses other visual/ poetic modes: concrete poetry and illustrated poetry with a delicate line drawing by his wife, Laurie. In Geohedrons, matt martin places phrases onto the sides of duodecahedrons constructed out of variously colored cardstock, each color signifying a different ecological niche, thereby turning nature poetry into a game of chance. John Hall also focuses on the solitary word in Blossom, dissecting the word “loss” from the word “blossom” and setting up a dialectic that points out the ephemeral nature of beauty and florescence, reminiscent of the Japanese practice of viewing of early spring’s cherry blossoms.  
Both martin and Hall depend on color in their work, which is unusual in a practice that tends to follow the monochromatic black-on-white convention of text. Colour seems to appear most often in book objects, those pieces that use three-dimensional “canvases” rather than paper, with its flat and areal surface. Stephen Emmerson’s Pharmocopoetics uses a delicate drug vial and capsules to provide the viewer with a poem in a pill. A witty comment on the prophylactic and curative qualities of poetry. Sarah Kelly’s Make My Eye Move and Untitled use the processes of papermaking to embed words in both the surface of a paper and into an organically shaped sculptural wad. In the work of Liliane Lijn, who is principally a visual artist, Jewel in the Wood and A for Elm move the black letters of text onto two turning cones striated with color, giving them a festive look, as if they were stylized, madcap Christmas trees decorated with poetic text.
Moving from mechanics to technology Tony Lopez and Victoria Bean both use the video screen as their canvas. Lopez’ More and More 2011 recreates the electronic notice board of train station and stock market, words rolling over to reveal one gripping message after another, many of which point to the worst excesses of political power. Bean’s Every Morning She’d Leave Me has more domestic overtones, the screen becoming that of the television screen gone haywire, the words stutter onto the screen, the partial sentences in delicate typewriter script appearing and disappearing in gnarled collisions. 
Kinetics lies at the heart of this intricate and intimate assemblage of bookworks by UK-based poet-artists. Each one in his or her way asks the question of how the physical aspects of written language can be shaped into a dynamic form that plays with the stream of sounds we cast out to each other every day. Each attempts to draw language seated in the silence of the page into a visual dimension akin to hearing and listening.  
15 March 2014