Tuesday, 23 June 2009

"on the verge of poetry" at the ICA

'Poor. Old. Tired. Horse', once a line in a poem by Robert Creeley, taken as the title for a magazine by Ian Hamilton Finlay, has been dragged out of retirement to name an exhibition at the ICA. The show is not all about concrete poetry, but aims to be "an exhibition of art that verges on poetry". It does have some fantastic concrete poetry, and allied (or resemblant) stuff from the 60s, which I think it seeks to establish as forerunner to contemporary artists' work with text, but the latter seems perhaps inevitably untogether in comparison with the poise and tightness, as well as surprisingness and exuberance of work in typewriter by Henri Chopin, the amazing dom sylvester hou├ędard, the twitchy, obsessive Christopher Knowles; also Carl Andre, who substitutes a violence for the lightness often associated with this kind of thing ("everywhere they are shooting people"--Creeley), and (this work of his new to me) Vito Acconci. Plus there are huge libidinous word-discs by Ferdinand Kriwet (b. 1942, much younger than I assumed), and 3 of Lilian Lijn's great poem machines, spinning away.

This one room (& Kriwet in the corridor) makes a lovely, substantial little show. It's preceded by a room of IH Finlay: directly on the wall Sea Poppy I (boat numbers in a spiral), plus another, and then some smaller things in desk cases -- postcards, prints, copies of P.O.T.H. and one or two books. (It only occurs to me now, the extent to which this is not an exhibition of words in books.)

Upstairs, two more rooms that make rather different impressions. One stays with a similar period but is more about illustration, or the combining of image & (the artist's own) text: Philip Guston drawings around Clark Coolidge words, some pages of Alasdair Gray (including monumental frontispieces for Lanark showing his great bibliographical absorption), two Blake-ish / cartoony sheets of words & figures by Robert Smithson, and Hockney's illustrations for Cavafy, in which I suppose you could choose to see the etched marks of the men's body hair, patterns of bed and wall coverings or neckties etc., not to mention the shop signs, as partaking of the same calligraphic line that wrote the (absent) verse texts ... It all makes a not unreasonable juxtaposition of work, and purveys a visual messiness in contrast to the typwewriter virtuosity and/or minimalist cleanliness downstairs.

Finally, what it might all be leading towards is a room of contemporary, younger artists' work. Frances Stark is often genuinely about an engagement with books, and her large piece, which involves transcribed text with inlays, and drawing, is materially interesting as well as funny and smart. I recall being intrigued and interested a couple of years ago at Tate Mod, by the strange, spare typed papers of Sue Tompkins. Those here have the look (misleadingly??) of innovative poetry, on faded blue letter paper (though A4), with enigmatic codes and use of almost inkless ribbon and cramped spacing. Her practice involves performance, another theme of the show which does seem to me an idea slightly too far. So I gather does Karl Holmqvist's (of whom I haven't heard before), who has here produced an A4 photocopied book of rappy verses and found photographs, blow-ups from which also paper a large expanse of the wall. It seems to me trite and trashy. I could of course be wrong; I just felt that (e.g.) Stephen Willatts on the one hand (socio-political care) and on the other Bob Cobbing (copier book publishing taste & technique) put this stuff to shame. The other things -- all worthy of more than this bare mention -- are 2 circus-style posters of Janice Kerbel; three prints by Matthew Brannon, and a film by Anna Barham, of hands rearranging transparent shapes ('tangrams' actually) into forms resembling letters, which apparently add up to texts.

As with the previous ICA show -- another language theme, that time 'speech' -- one must respect & appreciate the effort that has gone into putting together useful and substantial supporting resources: the 'magazine' gallery guide that only costs £1 and is available as a free pdf; the images, texts and links on the web.

So the tired horse being flogged here, that won't die, is -- concrete poetry? or is it just poetry? The curator says, "artists are now turning towards poetry and expressive language ... [but contrarily too he says they] explore the potential of poetry to move beyond the constraints of linguistic and graphic systems, reflecting the true complexity of communication and creating meaning that cannot be pinned down". If it's a matter of getting over words, I'm not sure that you'd need to go by this route; neither do I think it shows 'artists now' as very interested in poetry. Still, there is an attempt to reach towards something here, and you certainly don't want to miss seeing the show.