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Annie DeWitt

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Ann is a writer and text based artist interested in the implications and applications of visual language. She is a guest writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLog. She is also a Founding Editor of Gigantic, a new magazine of literature and art.... [more]

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“Thanks Annie for your selection of Eggleston photos. Great to see them on art+culture.”
Posted over 6 years ago
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Celebrated as his pinnacle achievement, Brakhage filmed this “epic” while living a hermetic life with his wife, Judy, and dog, Sirius, in a cabin in the snow-filled mountains of Colorado amidst the beauty and the danger of the natural elements.   The film begins with a “Prelude,” a section which Brakhage describes in the interview that follows as the dream which ignited the rest of the film.  Inspired by Ezra Pound's Cantos, the epic then continues in four sections.

Breaking entirely with the traditional role of film as a lens to record images as they already exist, Brakhage saw film as a medium in and of itself and experimented on it like a palette through burning, scratching and spitting on the surface of the film itself.  Brakhage even devised a system which allowed him to paint on film with ink, renderings which recall the color and abstraction of Pollack.  In several of these stills,  glimpses of moth wings appear, a naturalistic filter which Brakhage superimposed on sections of the film, adding texture to the images. 

In "Dog Star Man," Brakhage further experiments with recording on film which has already been used, feeding the same reel through the camera forwards and then backwards and then sometimes forwards again.  By the fourth and final section, there are four superimpositions of images.  



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Upon first encountering León Ferrari's “Arboles,” a large amorphous sculpture constructed of polyeurethane foam and small green polymer trees, I was reminded of three of spring’s small, but essential, pleasures: mixed drink ornaments, bath foam, and the opening passage of Harold Brodkey’s story “Spring Fugue:” 

“April is the duallests’ month.  Tacitly flirting with my wife, I carry two packets of Kleenex in my pockets - one for her, because of her allergies: she makes a small nifty nasal piccolo announcements of the annual change of life … First impulse of active live:  A sloppy kiss while my wife is putting on her shoes.  She gazes at me.  “Oh, it’s spring,” she says.”

Standing in the quiet fourth floor gallery amidst the “Tangled Alphabets” exhibit now on view at the MOMA, scribbling copious notes on linguistic transcription, hieroglyphics and the lives of featured artists León Ferrari and Mira Schendel, this struck me as on odd reaction to an otherwise rigorously intellectual show.

“Oh, it’s spring,” I said to myself.

An exhibit largely engaged with post-structuralism, semiology and the relationship of linguistic signs to the cultural symbols they represent, I had come to the show seeking an understanding of these artist’s engagement with text as figurative gesture. It has always struck me as curious, and somewhat irritating, that to this day traditional discussions of writing have remained largely outside the discussion of the visual idiom.   Writing is, after all, a craft like any other.  Though its employment of materials is little, that is exactly what makes it inherently a visual art form.  It relies on nothing but mark making.  Writing is akin to giving every painter a brush and a bucket of black paint and saying, “Go ahead.  Design something original.”  Really good writers, like Brodkey, work on the same sort of bottom-up level.  Their sentences are architecturally their own. 

An enthusiast of writing in all forms, digital, experimental and otherwise, I am an advocate of this idea of word as mark.  This is perhaps why I have trouble writing anything long.  As writer Samuel Delany once said in his fantastic essay, “The Semiology of Science:”

“Word or “logos” – is better considered a later, critical tool to analyze, understand and master some of the rich and dazzling things that go on through life and make up so much of it … what we called the “real world” seems to be nothing but codes, codic systems and complexes, and the codic terms used to designate on part of one system, complex or another.”  He went on to warn, “As you articulate those codes more and more, you soon find, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re at a much more dangerous and uncertain place.  You notice for example, the convention of white spaces between groups of letters that separate out words is, itself, just a code.”

The León Ferrari and Mira Schendel exhibit seemed to exist in conversation with Delany’s remarks:  What is the smallest codic unit through which meaning, dangerous or otherwise, can be represented?  Their works exhibited a painstaking analyzation of the basic processes of generating codic structures and seemed intent to test how that process could be recreated, distorted and, on a more figurative level, even satirized.  I was particularly struck by Maria Schendel’s series of Untitled “written drawings,” a series of linguistic transcriptions on thin Japanese paper.  The drawings themselves were created through a process of negative transcription which Maria termed “base-relief.”  The table below the paper was stained with black oil paint, the patterns of which she then traced on the paper itself using her fingernail or a sharp object which transcribed one surface to the other.  The result was an oddly recognizable though non-literate language.  Poetic.  Natural.  And yet oddly transgressive.

Part of the emotion generated by these works, and the show at large, was the feeling that they belonged to some larger philosophical, and perhaps even political, conversation regarding issues of received order and totalitarianism and on the flip side, egalitarianism and the transparency of gesture.  Schendel herself once said of the ethics of her texts, “The characters simulate the time passed, but do not seize the irretrievable living experience that characterizes this time.  Anyone can read and reread my scribbles on paper, but no one can read time.” 

Perhaps this explains my strange series of associations triggered by Ferrari’s “Arboles” sculpture.  If the purpose of the exhibit was to engage with the ethics of artmaking as a “radical possible expression of the human condition,” maybe I wasn’t totally off base.

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