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Robbins, Corinne. "Collaborations." American Book Review.
Word plus picture, visual plus verbal image, the old Surrealist dream of collaboration between the arts continues to inspire artists and poets. Certainly the word as a visual form in and of itself began with Apollinaire. In any case, collaboration between artist and writers became one of Surrealism's many battle cries. Surrealism, in and of itself the most literary of art forms, tent itself to the depiction of the unconscious, to explicating Freud's ideas on la
language games. But despite the Surrealist revolution, eighty years later we still read the poem on the page in and of itself. In the nineteen seventies, the writer's book, the artist's book emerged as separate entities with now and then an attempt at collaboration... Before this, before the advent of the artist's book (and the creation of Printed Matter, a bookstore now on Wooster Street in SoHo), the page was the writer's turf to which the artist, standing aside politely, donated his/ her talents, serving (at best) as a wrong way mirror or (at worst) a guest illustrator illuminating the writer's thoughts.
In not a few recent books in the last several years a new kind of collaboration is taking place where visual and verbal artists are equals. Kelsey Street Press has published a series of books that attempt such collaborations with varying degrees of success. A few of these still belong under the head of poems plus illustrations, but in others it seems to this writer real collaboration is achieved in which the word and image are finally and, it would seem, irrevocably married.
"We have this in common: art and life, children, daughters named Maddy, indefatigable acrobatic capacity to surf multiple projects from zero to upheaval," Alison Saar and Erica Hunt write in their collaborative statement at the end of Arcade. Both women are talented, innovative artists. Alison Saar's figural sculpture in various media have an atavistic flavor that harks back to primitive art, but take its almost recognizable statuary a step further and converts, for example, the face of a woman, the tower of her body, the action of her river of hair into an unforgettable sculptural icon. The best description I know of the power that Saar brings to her depictions of the female body is in Erica Hunt's poem "Science of the Concrete":
At first you see
only its description
a container of its
folded into the carved
then you don't know
what you are seeing
whether it is the abject
you see or the shadow
the body stops
in its dream
. But unlike her sculptures, Saar's handsome red/ mauve, purple, and white woodcuts dealing with the body be-
ginning with a female image in a fetal position, have a flatness, a mannered matter-of-factness, an air of generalization that does away with issues of discovery or surprise. Her only hundred percent successful woodcut appeal on the cover as well as opposite a Hunt poem entitled "so sex, the throne whose abrasions we crave." On the cover, the title Arcade is printed on an arch above an almost demure black nude, her image-bearing body incised with symbols that are seemingly tattooed to its surface. This unforgettable image, surrounded by tiding cloth squares, surprises and stops us, as do HUM'S poems over and over. For the rest, the handsome woodcuts remain apart (and perhaps tell a separate story) from the poems in Arcade.
In not a few recent books in the last several years a new kind of collaboration is taking place where visual and verbal artists are equals.
Little Orphan Anagram represents a more successful collaboration between poet and artist in which pans and nursery language poems run through... the meaning of the visual imagery romping across O's pages. The themes set forth in Little Orphan Annie are innocence in a world of violence, desire... procreation, sex for its own sake, and birth and JJCJ&. Artist Susan Bee, preoccupied with images from the end of the 19th century, paints heroines in high-necked dresses, anatomically correct nudes in high heeled shoes, images from ladies magazines and early 20th century children's books. On the book's white page... black, and vermilion nursery book colors shine. [On] the first page, Charles Bernstein's postmodern language nursery rhymes announce "My breast is bursting WJA pride to see my son go down the slide." And the woe continues its own brand of mockery. [In a] pseudo-cautionary trip through the wild, wilder, and wildest of Susan Bee's paintings, which include an iron-clad Greek holding his head in one hand, a staff in other, and standing on a green sky road... "Poetry fakes nothing" shining down from [the]... moon. Both Bernstein and Bee dish out a wise wrong-sided world apart from straight up and down truths. The book is at once beautiful and tremendously energetic. Here again, the letters of the words are—active visual element as Little Orphan Anagram succeeds in reminding us art can be, above all, serious play.
Corinne Robins, art critic and poet, is the author of Facing It (Pratt Press, 1996) and a contributing editor to American Book Review.
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