Poetic Power

Kenneth Goldsmith makes words art, and art words

In these, the artist's broad curve of expansion/contraction breaks loose to explore asymmetry and disorder. The last rhyme scheme -- "Brother / Lover / Mother / Other /Smother / Another / Undercover" -- relates back to the first poem, thus insuring a cyclical, immanent reference. The work is never static and never complete.

Similarly, a giant triptych featuring six silk-screened columns of text, "No. 105 5.23.92 -- 6.21.92," begins with monosyllabic rhymes: "B, b, be..." and progresses to multisyllabic names and phrases culled from history, pop culture and the art world. The text of run-on prose is characterized by an explosion of words in manic verbosity: "fleur-de-lis, 4-AD, Frank Gehry, fricassee, G.O.P., Givenchy, gluttony, golly gee" or "Question Authority, Ralph Lauren Safari, recycling's easy, Regis and Kathie Lee, skinny black and funky, snow blankets in the city, Siouxsie and the Banshees...."

All in all, Goldsmith's art is a free-for-all of language. Its hybrid nature clearly draws inspiration from Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Bruce Nauman and Jenny Holzer, conceptual artists who have explored language and its systems of signification at one time or another for more than two decades. Significantly, John Cage's apparent contradiction of creating form and presence in the face of withdrawal and chance serves as touchstone. Cage wanted a music not heard before; he wanted to find ways to bring new sounds, and new silences, into music, to find illuminatingly modern ways to develop rhythmic structures. Not surprisingly, a collaboration between Goldsmith and Joan La Barbara, whose vocal interpretations and performances of Cage's works are well known, presented both the obsessiveness and idiosyncrasy of the late composer's music, its balance between silence and sound, between empty and filled space.

The opening night preview of "73 Poems" was distinguished by La Barbara's solo vocal orchestration of each panel, in which she multiplied their rich layering to magnificent profusion. La Barbara used her amplified voice in concert with a prerecorded digital audio tape of multitrack prior readings as a vocal field equivalent to Goldsmith's under/over texts. Accordingly, she created a kind of sonic space in which the abstract poems became shapes and structures, by turns monolithic walls, reclining pyramids or interlocking chains.

La Barbara has developed an extended vocabulary of vocal sounds that range from traditional song to a wild assortment of glottal ticks and stops, inhaled notes and overtone chant. La Barbara's voice can be coated with gauzy ambiance; it also has the uncommon ability to take a metaphor and stretch it so ridiculously far that it's no longer a metaphor but a vivid waking dream. When La Barbara sang "Eat Me" toward the end of the series, she gave it a frivolous, Alice in Wonderland impression that was quickly shaded by a more abstract, heavier and almost evil vocal tone.

Throughout, La Barbara paid careful attention to how one poem flowed into the next, as well as the dramatic shifts taking place in the course of the mysterious journey. For example, the zeroes occupying the central portion were represented by notes so close together as to convey the aural illusion of one set growing from another. Taken together, Goldsmith's text and La Barbara's vocals coalesce in a dimension of depth, a union of parts that's ostensibly simple and repetitive yet capable of evoking complex emotional responses. As part of the "73 Poems" project, Permanent Press of New York has published a limited edition volume reproducing the poems and, on compact disc, La Barbara's performance. Goldsmith considers the book a natural extension of this multimedia creation.

Seemingly connected and disconnected, "73 Poems" unleashes a fully fleshed word portrait of modern life. Amid the rising tide of rhetoric, Goldsmith reminds us that the written word is not just a weapon, but may be our only true wealth.

"73 Poems," drawings by Kenneth Goldsmith, will show through March 25 at Lawndale Art & Performance Center, 4912 Main, 528-5858.

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