Writing Vision, Visual Writing
New Art Examiner June 1990
School of the Fine Arts
38660 Mentor Ave, Willoughby, Ohio
This exhibition of "visual poetry," an art form normally limited to the printed page, included the work of five Ohio artists: John Byrum, John M. Bennett, and Steven B. Smith (each of whom is editor / publisher of a visual poetry magazine); as well as James Lang and George Fitzpatrick.
Visual poetry, with its heritage in Dadaist investigations into concrete poetry based on visual relationships between letters and words and photomontage, refuses to accept established boundaries between vision and language. Words establish visual patterns; images become language.
Writing Vision, Vusual Writing curator Byrum chose a site which challenged the boundaries of the traditional gallery setting as well - the lobby and hallways of an arts education center. Although the presentation was scattered throughout the school, it was united in spirit and vision.
Byrum places high-contrast photographic images of tree branches beside word arrangements which echo the shapes of the limbs. Following the word patterns in Byrum's work is like gazing into a maze of branches or staring at clouds; the viewer becomes lost, then discovers a personal meaning. His image-poem Multiplex, done in large press-type on a window, was the only piece in the exhibition which actually integrated into the space itself. Byrum attempted, not entirely successfully, to have the trees outside take on the role of the photographic tree branches in the other works.
Lang is a storyteller. In contrast to Byrum's elegant images, his works are roughly pasted and tacked clippings of words and pictures onto raw plywood. Each piece is an essay, with topics ranging from hassles with the phone company (Phon Ex) to the relationship between makeup and painting (Why Women Paint).
Smith has mastered John Heartfield's ability to combine and manipulate images, and has used this approach in three-dimensional bas-relief. Although the works possess a political and cultural critique, they lack incisiveness.
The strength of Bennett's poetry seemed sadly diluted by its presentation as crudely formed lettering under caricature drawings. The lettering becomes an obfuscation which has little to do with the text itself.
By contrast, in Fitzpatrick's hands language becomes a decorative element. His large transcripts of historical text are written so tightly and beautifully as to be barely legible. This is truly visual writing: the message is the vision of the word.