Poetic Power

In a day of faxes, printouts, Internet bulletins, e-mail and other electronic wonders, Kenneth Goldsmith's laboriously pencil-drawn words that emphasize the virtue of manual writing seem obsessively, if gleefully, old-fashioned. In his installation 73 Poems at Lawndale Art & Performance Center, the New York artist celebrates language as a product of the hand as well as the brain.

Combining elements of Joycean prose, MTV, radio, magazines and concrete poetry, Goldsmith strings together hand-lettered words and phrases on 79 sheets (yes, despite the title, borrowed from e.e. cummings, there are 79 poems) that are mounted as separate panels, like book pages, and constitute individual architectonic walls. His "poems" are two dimensional sculpted graphics that assert their independence as such even as they form words that follow the rhyming dictionary.

For Goldsmith, language is understood to be sight and sound as well as sense. The overall effect is a choral buzz that links ritual chanting, sung "rounds" and hip-hop lyrics. Each line is a single word or, at most, a short phrase, and sometimes they are reduced to single letters or numbers. Each poem features a rhyming sequence in boldface print, set against another, barely visible sequence. Text that appears in boldface on one panel fades to provide the background of the text on the next panel, creating an overlapping of poetic verse as the words seemingly whirl into dizzying horizontal, vertical and block patterns. Goldsmith astutely connects words according to the way they look and sound rather than according to what they mean.

In any case, there's no taking the letters or words for granted, no matter how familiar they appear at first. Seduced by their abstract pattern, viewers are alternately challenged to read the words, sound them out and try to understand them all at once. Without a doubt, Goldsmith is a skillful wordsmith -- he has an almost unfailing ear for language, be it junk mail come-ons or snippets from classic literature. One panel carries this text: "God It's Great / Going Straight / Got a Date / I Can't Wait / Palpitate / Pearly Gate / Welfare State." The next panel continues the rhyming scheme: "True State / V8 / 1/2 Past Eight / Out of Date / Police State / X-Pollinate / Hallucinate / W.B. Yeats."

Goldsmith knowingly utilizes the aesthetic commandments that have practically become the mantras of postmodernity -- to undermine, destabilize and transgress. Language and symbolic memory are the tools that allow us to be aware of being conscious, and hence circumscribe our understanding of art. Yet language is also the primordial word become flesh, the flexible skin of the mind, flayed, tanned and draped onto the armature of syntax. This is a culture, however, that doesn't make the word into a medium of discourse. The word functions instead as a shock, a register of pure emotion, an aggression that is auditory and mental. Words have value only as slogans.

Around the clock, the airwaves are saturated with talk shows, news programs and infomercials, all adding to an ever-spiraling tower of babble. Moreover, books are daily losing their status as the carriers of culture and rapidly becoming something between quaint artifact and disposable trash. Goldsmith's text art intersects with today's culture on all fronts. Words accumulate, and in their sprawl we can see our world, perhaps ourselves.

His gatherings have a way of preserving memory without imposing a particular story for that memory. Still, as the bold type of one panel is carried over to the next, but screened to gray, viewers can't help but acknowledge this visual pressure from "below," from "before," yesterday's poem affecting today's, and today a feature in the language arrangement of what's still ahead.

What's ahead, of course, are huge blocks of odd allusions and suggestive meanings generated by serendipitous juxtapositions. The result is a multilayered rhythm built line by line, then panel by panel according to the artist's organizational principles. Always conscious of ordering systems, Goldsmith picks words and phrases for their end-rhyme as well as for their number of syllables, which usually increases from top to bottom in increments of one. "Gain Weight / Jailbait / Hesitate / Penetrate / Soul Mate / Watergate."

Curiously, his ordering system produces a chance-inspired freedom rather than a confining set of strictures. Sly humor and unpredictable couplings send out probes into our minds for fresh associations. Each system represents a norm from which others deviate, thereby setting up a code of expectations that they transgress. The poems sustain exactly this sort of meandering order within disorder: text steps over text to create a constant fade-out, a visual metaphor for aural transience. Some words float, other repeated letters are piled like pickup sticks; secret meanings are encoded in sequences; letters loosen into purely elegant graphics.

Goldsmith simultaneously talks out of both sides of his mouth and sees out of both corners of his eye. Poems swell toward language saturation, then become emaciated. By poem 25, the panel is reduced to a single letter: "I." But then this "I" takes on flesh, fills out, even transforms itself from central conflating pun (of eye with self) into something hauntingly primal. By the time we get to poems 41-46, all "language" has been eliminated in favor of pure pattern, of delta-shaped zeroes darting across the page. Nonetheless, the zeroes also mutate into Arabic numerals, which are then spelled out so that alphabetical language appears again in the final panels.

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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