The event last night at AIR Gallery combined the energy of collaboration with a postmodern investigation of framing and backgrounds in image/text works. Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee, charming as ever, gave an improvisatory slide talk and reading in which they showed images from each of their book collaborations by Granary, Chax, and others, including The Nude Formalism, Little Orphan Anagram ("a children's book for adults"), Fool's Gold, and Log Rhythms. They also showed several collaborative paintings such as "Sign Under Test" which incorporated Charles' language. I was struck by their evident enthusiasm about the projects and their collaborative way of excitedly pointing out the various details: notice this feature, that feature. In Susan's artwork there seems to be a postmodern proliferation of figures and points of interest that playfully leads the eye around the piece, and this quality meshes well with the many exposed rhetorical seams and framing devices in Charles' writing. Together they explore a characteristically playful, theatrical mode filtered as much through Brecht as through Blake, alternately highlighting noir, mock-Victorian, and science fiction themes.
Framing may indeed be a key word here, as a lot of these collaborations learn from Blake by bringing out a motif from the text and using it as frame for the language, and this is different from the notion of "illustrating" a text. Susan's images in many cases complicate the text's relation to the page as background, by superimposing poetry on the body of a harlequin figure in Log Rhythms, or by fitting nursery rhyme poems within playful cut-out shapes in Little Orphan Anagram. In The Nude Formalism, there is a wonderful page spread of Stein-esque ekphrastic poems ("A big / circle with a belly and two knees / and two feet with two lines with / feet on the bottom") in which the difficulties surrounding the creation of "imagery" through language are highlighted by framing the poetry with an ornate image of an open book. So the relation of the language to the page becomes doubled, and it no longer sits on the book itself but now on the image of the book. But these collaborators not only problematize the relationship between language and the book, they also create situations which are new for painting: Susan related a story in which a woman saw the collaborative paintings in a gallery and was reading a passage from one of Charles' poems with her nose up against the painting. She noted that she had never seen someone do that with a painting before.
The second half of the evening featured a presentation on Before Water, Francie Shaw's wonderful collaboration with Bob Perelman. Showing in the adjacent gallery, this moving piece combines a spare, meditative poem by Perelman with a series of large-format person-sized digital photographs which cover the walls. This series of mixed, watery strata echoes the rhythm of the lines down the vertical photograph "pages." You can still see this show at AIR Gallery through the end of June, and I'd highly recommend it. The presentation itself consisted of an explanation by Francie of the piece's original form: in the seventies the New Langton Arts performance of this piece involved a scroll of paper with a series of wave-like marks on it and a film projector running in the background. Bob read the poem by the light of the projector while at key moments Francie would move in and make various marks, adding to the wave imagery as an improvisatory process.
But last evening at AIR, Bob read the poem without the images or the scroll of paper (we could see them in the adjoining gallery if we chose to). The zen-like text consisted of maybe a hundred short sentences employing a minimal vocabulary. These sentences were involved in a bewildering process of making writing material by troping poetry's relationship to the "invisible" or "clear" language of conceptual art: "the sentence is an obstacle to noise." But one way in which these sentences were not minimal was demonstrated by their wild moments of synesthesia: "I read my own blue." Ringing the changes on a limited palette of words including "noise," "end," "sentence," "water," "time," "thought," and "word," Bob read this text all the way through and when he was done, the room felt strangely open, hushed, and activated. It was pretty hypnotic. Francie's images were by comparison a wonderful example of excess, collaging a variety of water photographs and blending them into strata mediated by obviously expressionist horizontal marks of the artist's hand which at certain moments resembled a kind of watery graffiti. The poem and the images here played off one another in a flickering, shallow depth relation that I enjoyed being present to witness.