Saturday, December 10, 2005

Physical Acts: Thornton Dial and Reclamation

Growing up in rural Missouri, I wasn’t exposed to much art. So when, at 19, I visited Monet’s Water Lily Gallery in Paris’s Musée de l'Orangerie, I was literally moved to tears by the sheer beauty of Monet’s paintings as they curved around the gallery he had specially designed. From that moment on, I realized art – visual, literary, or musical – is physical. Before the intellect kicks in and starts theorizing, historicizing, and contextualizing, the body reacts. To paraphrase the oft-used Emily Dickinson quote, one feels as if your head has been taken off – leaving only the body to appreciate the work. .

For me, it is often this initial reaction that forms my strongest and most lasting impression of a work of art. And since, my first such experience was with Monet’s Water Lilies it has become, for better or worse and even though they are no longer my favorite works of art, the benchmark by which I judge my reaction to other visual art. Few works have reached that level, but the work of self-taught African-American artist Thornton Dial has.

That long preamble was basically to say Dial’s current show at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston blew me away.

Using a vast array of found objects, from carpet scraps to two-litter soda bottles, from cattle bones to car parts, Dial creates large-scale two- and three-dimensional works that transform the debris of history into explorations of post-9/11 America, race, nature, and life. But what struck me first was the physicality of the work. In The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle transcends the quieter color-fields of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, by arranging plastic soda bottles, dolls, pieces of clothing, wire, found metal, gloves, and plastic flowers on a large canvas and then painting everything yellow, invoking a three-dimensional color field alive with a sense of movement and chaos.

While In The Beginning... celebrates birth, Dial’s Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill) emanates a sense of death and loss by assembling a gray field of desiccated animal carcasses, old shoes, tire scraps, and pieces of farm tools.

Though Dial’s visionary (in the sense of Blake) approach to color and objects transfigures the various components into a new whole, Dial constantly reminds the viewer of the objects origins as the scraps, the detritus, of society, generating a tension between an almost spiritual beauty and its mundane, ugly origins.

Thinking of Dial’s work I can’t help but think of Google-sculpted poetry such as flarf. While Dial searches fields and farms for cast-off junk, the poet clicks around the internet gathering cast-off phrases to reassemble into a new construct. Though Dial draws more from the industrial age and the poets more from the information age, there are similar impulses at work: attempts to reclaim, to reshape, to reconstruct society’s debris. Found objects/found phrases “pouring through the vernacular” (Drew Gardner, Petroleum Hat).

But Dial’s work unlike poetry has space and literal physicality. His work’s physical presence draws the viewer corporally into Dial’s vision(s). You become one of the found objects reclaimed from society’s trash heap. Dial transmutes objects and viewer creating a moment, a space, that might also transform, even if just briefly, society.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Domestic Projects: A Random Thought on Gertrude Stein and Lorrie Moore

What do Lorrie Moore and Gertrude Stein have in common, other than I’m reading both of them right now? They write in different genres (does Stein actually write in a known “genre”?). They are separated by three or four generations. Even after nearly a century Stein’s brilliance is still somewhat obscured, while Moore, though hardly a bestseller, is widely praised.

And maybe the fact that I’m reading them at the same time, and that they both write in English, is all they have in common. Maybe I’m just seeking connections between unconnectable “things.” But I do see a connection. Domesticity. Or more the perversion of domesticity. Or maybe the problem of the perversion of domesticity. They both explore the tension between an idealized view of domesticity and a perceived reality, and the tension between domesticity and the exotic, the undomestic.

Their strategies are very different, which is reflected in their choice of genres. In Tender Buttons, Stein takes the actual language of domesticity (Objects, Food, Rooms), and, as if the nouns and verbs were physical objects, turns it on its heads, scrambles it and reassembles it into some adult version of Green Eggs and Ham. She throws an entire house through a cracked looking glass and forces the reader to climb in after it, forcing us to rethink our relationship to both language and the items she “describes.” (I’m using describes very loosely.)

Moore also employs a cracked looking glass, but instead of throwing things throw it she forces her characters in front of it. She approaches domesticity not through it’s framework or it’s language, but through its population. Moore’s characters seem to inhabit the domestic space’s Stein has de/relanguaged. Stein’s spaces seem devoid of inhabitants. Her response to the void of the domestic is too tear it down and rebuild it. Moore’s response is less radical, or at least more subtle, she forces you to live there.

The obvious problem is I’m comparing jackhammers to faulty plumbing and shredded blue jeans, experimental poetry to well-crafted short stories, anti-narrative to narrative. In this case, both are highly valuable as art, and together highlight the limits of each approach. Stein’s writing seems supra-human, but also devoid of characters, even “humanity” at times. Language seems to replace everything, and it doing so throws, necessarily, into question our very relationship to language, and our relationship to the “reality” it purports to describe. Moore deals less with the questions of language, and more with character’s relationship to “reality” as the character perceives it.

Is a melding of Stein and Moore possible? Not a compromise between the two, but something that radically reharmonizes the two into something new. (Maybe it has already occurred and I’m not aware of it, maybe Fanny Howe’s fractured and fragile domestic scenes). Because it seems the more I read Stein, who I tried to read at 19, during my Beat-phase and couldn’t wrap my head around (not that I have wrapped my head around her now), the more I think that much of contemporary “post-avant” poetry is trying to recreate, rewrite Stein. She often seems more influential than Pound or Eliot or Williams, and more modern than all three, and a better “contemporary” poet that many contemporary poets. However, Moore writes, stylistically at least, as if Stein never did, yet Moore inhabits similar spaces. It seems that instead of just rewiring Stein, an interesting project would be forcing Moore’s characters to not just live in Stein’s de/reconstructed spaces, but also in her de/reconstructed language.