September 9, 2004

Visionary Language

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Upon entering the empty, unassuming and almost uncomfortably open space of the Handwerker Gallery in Ithaca College, one sees a wall lined with woodblock prints by one of the most significant and well-known surrealists of the twentieth century, Salvador Dali. The collection displayed is a set of twenty-seven woodblock prints inspired by Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.

Dali’s prints, however, are not mere supplementary illustrations of Dante’s journey through the three realms of the Catholic afterlife, the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Alighieri’s linguistic opulence is matched by Dali’s impressionistic complexity. Style and technique vary from one print to another, yet remains recognizable as distinctly Dali: the presence of soft, pliable forms that melt and blend into vast, inhospitable landscapes. Dali employs images from his own lexicon to give a visual, two-dimensional performance of Alighieri’s text.

Dali’s creatures, though petrified behind glass frames, are in perpetual motion: the colors maddeningly swirl into one another and figures evaporate into other forms withholding from its viewer their true nature (assuming they have one).

Similar to his more popular surrealist oil paintings, the woodblock prints initially seem familiar until the figures reveal themselves to have horrifyingly dissolved into another creature like in La Selva dei Suicidi (The Forest of Suicides) where the bark of the forest trees grow muscular, weeping forms, (dis)figures of anguish. One would forget the images framed and nailed onto the white-washed walls were wood engravings when looking at an image like La Perfezion Originaria (The Original Perfection). At first glance, one sees a haphazard suffusion of diluted paint as if one spilled the water cup for rinsing paintbrushes onto a sheet of paper. There are no outlines; definition is achieved only by gradating hues. And then there is Il Centauro (The Centaur) whose tragic grace is informed by bunches of brilliant carroty loops forming a impossibly perfect proportional image of a mythical creature appearing almost like a mathematical figurative.

The other half of the exhibit displays works by contemporary artists that create images of words. Jocelyn Webb provides a visual performance of Lucille Clayton’s poem The Cemetery, Walnut Grove Plantation, South Carolina. Clayton calls out to and for the “dishonored names” of slaves, of women slaves that do not appear on any tombstone anywhere. Adjacent to Clayton’s inquiring words, Webb places the “bashful names,” hardly visible names of a pale blue hue barely making it through the surface of the heavy coarse paper, whispering their identities, dying to be heard.

Perhaps the perfomativity of the exhibit is best seen in Buzz Spector’s what next, a meta-conscious piece that performs on different planes of awareness . Two pieces of yarn between two sheets of handmade paper spell out the words ‘what next.’ The work is left unfinished and untied; the yarn spills out hanging on one side, leaving the viewer reading and asking the question what next about a skillfully incomplete piece.

The relationship and interaction between image and word in the exhibit is not the common one of picture and caption where the words attempt to name, explain or tell the story of the picture, or the image attempting to illustrate, visualize, or materialize the words of a text. The title is a misleading one. The slash between the words in the title IMAGE/WORD on one level implies that the two are interchangeable, images performed by words, words in place of images. Upon reaching the last piece in the collection, one may look upon the slash a little differently. Images and words not only intersect nor share a relationship; they occupy the same space. Cheryl Kramer, the director, explains that the gallery strives to create “a dynamic setting where the visual, literary and performing arts intersect.” Indeed, the exhibit succeeds in creating a dynamic setting on many realms. There is active interaction between Dali and Alighieri, the artists and the author, the viewers and the artwork. One also would come to find ontological instability among the significations of image and word. They are not merely supplement to the other, not either/or, but are blurred into one another, like Dali’s surrealist figures.

The first exhibit of the 2004-2005 academic year, IMAGE/WORD: The Intersection of Art and Literature also features contemporary Book Art by Nancy Callahan, Judith Levey-Kurlander and Zevi Blum, Buzz Spector, and Susan Weisend. The exhibition runs through September 26. Artists Nancy Callahan and Terrence Chouinaed will be at the gallery on Sept. 16 from 12:10 pm to 1 pm. Professor Buzz Spector, chair of Cornell’s art department will also be giving a talk at the same time on the 23rd of September.

Archived article by Whine Del Rosario
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer