Group shows around a theme can go several ways, especially if new work is being produced for the theme rather than curating from the best works of an artist around a theme. It gets more complicated—and less likely of success—when the works are collaborative. So when a group show succeeds in spite of the challenges it poses for itself, it’s particularly satisfying for the viewer. Blindfold Gallery’s Poets and Painters exhibit hits all the right notes with five collaborative pairs (one poet, one painter) with distinct idioms and voices that consistently produce works that are greater than the sum of their parts.
That may sound like mixed praise—an indication that these works wouldn’t be outstanding or even particularly appealing on their own. For some of them, it is true, but the whole point of the exercise is to create a unified work between two disparate modes of expression. The message and effect of one form cannot be translated to the other and none of the poems attempt to be ekphrastic. In some cases, there seems to be a back-and-forth between the painter and poet—playful and loving, in the case of the pairing of poet Andrew Bartels and painter Kimberly Trowbridge, or pensive and meditative, as between poet Tara Atkinson and painter Justin Duffus (a collaboration titled My Heart is a City).
In the case of painter Anne Petty (represented by Prographica Gallery) and poet Sean Flannigan, it seems that they took existing works and paired them to unique effect. Whether this is assessment is accurate or not, their trio of paired works are among my favorites, as all parts live independently but invest each other with deeper meaning.
Adjacent, the scrapbooky presentation of Trowbridge and Bartels belies the craft of the works. The admixture of paintings, artifacts, photos and printed matter is partly chosen, no doubt, because there is so much to include in a limited space, and if it had succeeded it might give one a sense of discovery picking among the pieces, but in the end it just weakens the effect of Trowbridge’s paintings, which mirror the larger collage. We would be better off with one or the other as it is—but I can’t help but feel that a different arrangement could have saved the concept. It’s a shame, because the paintings have visual interest and the words are compelling, but all is lost in the presentation. The collaboration between the two is lovely in terms of the actual pieces, but one must break it all down (mentally de-install it) on one’s own to actually appreciate them.
Bartels’ words, however, do provide a key to the viewer should one wish to untangle the presentation:
They understood photographs would lead to this moment, but also become part of it as if by syllogism. This process is always incomplete, each successive gesture infected by memory.
This circularity of experience, of images and thoughts within oneself and between others cannot be so tidily expressed in collage as it can in a pithy phrase. That alone is worth considering as one tries to unpack the visuals as they are displayed.
It wouldn’t have to be as orderly and regular as the grid of paintings by Duffus across the room. Atkinson’s corresponding poems are read by the poet and cam be heard through earphones installed below the twenty paintings, all oil on mylar. Each painting is done from roughly the same, limited perspective of kitchens, stoves, boxes, variously abstract and figurative. Some are beautiful on their own; others work in context, and together the varicolored display is quite appealing. Atkinson’s poems are much the same: all little slices of life, tenderly, rather self-consciously narrated. They are youthful, full of references to young love, beer and parties, but not too twee. As each is a memory or thought associated with a person, and as the poems proceed to mentions of the departed and one’s own sense of being forgotten and becoming unimportant, they are a coming of age story in bite-sized pieces.
Indeed, because these memories are largely associated with food and kitchens—points around which we naturally convene—there is something visceral about it. This is quite literal in “Joshua” which speaks of the gift of a “liver or kidney,” (Atkinson doesn’t remember which) without explaining its source. Elsewhere, it becomes a charming metaphor, as when sundogs and other rare celestial and terrestrial phenomena are compared with the sweetest, most indulgent part of the food pyramid (“Eric”). In “Daniel” a person (all people in one’s life) become items on a grocery list, perhaps necessary, perhaps interchangeable with others. And in the sobering end, Atkinson speaks of “Steven” whose face has already become dislocated from the name by the time she hears of his passing. As in Duffus’ painting—which on its own is an ominous, black monolithic form, but in context of the other paintings is a black floor among an erased interior—the acknowledgement that “you are already forgotten” becomes less a commentary on Steven and more on the porousness of our living memories, which allow things to slip away from us before they are truly gone.
The collaboration of poet Shawn McEntyre and artist Robert Hardgrave is a dystopic reversal of failing and tender memory. McEntyres recorded voice is a distorted, eerie, computerized paean to living In This New Eden of externalized memories, based mostly on one’s consumed experiences, with pornographic flourishes and unbridled ego. It is the world of the archive, unfiltered and hungry for more. Thus, even the alimentary associations of Atkinson’s words (and her child-like voice) finds a dark mirror in the sneering, salivating, garbled delivery of McEntyre. Similarly, Duffus’s carefully gridded, compartmental, colorful and rectilinear vision meets its foil in the crumpled, infolding, monochromatic and serpentine vision of Hardgrave’s painting.
Hence, not only is there an intentional play between each poet and artist pair, but between the different pairings we find a splendid balance of aesthetics. To this extent, one might view the small display of works by Sara Long and Riley Cox as a counterpart to Anne Petty and Sean Flannigan’s staid presentation in the back corner. Long and Cox also seem to have chosen existing artifacts and arranged them alongside a few crystals and crosses and a skull in a bottle. The presentation renders the poems inaccessible and the overall effect a bit of a weak curio. That’s a shame, because Long’s colorful, textured portraits deserve a story of their own, and among the more monumental works and without the support of text, they get a little lost.
All the same, it is a show worth seeing…and sadly this Saturday is the last chance to do so, so if you are Capitol Hill, stop by Blindfold Gallery and get a little art and poetry in one stop. It’s worth it.