February 11, 2020

Slowly, with Much Expression


2007; Hesitation Kit series (for Billy Strayhorn)

2007

2007

2007

2007

2007

2007

In New York I worked in publishing from 1987 to 1995, managing a small satellite office across the street from Grand Central, around the corner from the New York Public Library, for the University of California Press. By day I worked on books by other people. At night and on the weekends, I read and took long walks and wrote in my notebooks about my walks and my reading.

1993; excerpt from Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone,” translated by Samuel Beckett.

2013

2014, from Home and Away series for a Creative Work Fund project, Fruitvale District, Oakland.

2014, from the Home and Away project.

Around 1992, I met Susan Wheeler, a poet who made subtle, elegant collages, and we started a postcard correspondence, though we lived just a few miles from each other. My collages were decidedly inelegant, and that was liberating for me. When I wasn’t at work, I was surrounded by seriously good painters (the pioneering cohort in Williamsburg and Greenpoint in the 1980s); their materials were expensive (as were their Ivy League educations), and then there was rent for studio space and storage for big paintings that might or might not sell. I, on the other hand, was all about low overhead and making something with nothing much.

At night that spring, on the way home from work, I’d walk down Fifth Avenue and stop at tourist traps to buy postcards, ten for a dollar. I used office supplies (Wite-Out, ballpoint pens and markers, glue sticks) to doctor them, and I did some erasure, too — black outs with Sharpies. My notebooks were, to quote Walter Benjamin, a “tissue of quotations”; sometimes bits of my reading would appear in the postcard collages.

1993

1993

1993

1993

1993

1993 (Ralph Waldo Emerson quote)

The Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, and the Empire State Building inspired me, which was good, because most tourist postcards depicted these three places. There were endless shades of blues and greens in those pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the water in New York Harbor.

In these palm-sized visual poems, I found myself channeling my preoccupations: my interest in the romance and propaganda of American immigrant stories (all of my grandparents were white immigrants); my Catholic shame and anger; my grief and rage (about my brother‘s death, especially) in the age of ACT UP; American history and lies; family secrets and my own secrets; and my love of music.

1994 Hart Crane series.

1994

1994

1994

1994

1994

I had long been obsessed with the Great Depression and Farm Security Administration photos of that period. We published a book about them, and I visited the Library of Congress and looked into the cabinets of photos (thousands of them are online and in the public domain now). My father’s mother had been an Irish immigrant, an indigent domestic who was unmarried when she gave birth to him in 1932; in 1994, I got hold of a social worker’s report about her case. Much later, in 2014, as I prepared for a show of my work in Ireland, I started using those documents in my collages.

The text is from a City of Boston’s welfare department, 1932-33 — from a four-page report about my indigent grandmother and her “illegitimate” infant (my father) during the depths of the Great Depression. The image is public domain (anonymous photographer, collection of erotica, Library of Congress Prints and Drawings).

Excerpt from the City of Boston’s welfare report about my father’s mother.

The FSA archives are tagged by occupation, among other things. It occurred to me to search for “prostitution,” since in those desperate years, many women resorted to it. Among thousands and thousands of images of workers in America, I could find only seven images of sex workers, all as shady as this one and all taken in Peoria, Illinois.

Here is an excerpt from Meridel Le Sueur’s “Women on the Breadlines,” 1932: “A young girl who went around with Ellen [a poor, attractive young woman] tells about seeing her last evening back of a cafe downtown outside the kitchen door, kicking, showing her legs so that the cook came out and gave her some food and some men gathered in the alley and threw small coin on the ground for a look at her legs. And the girl says enviously (cont’d)

that Ellen had a swell breakfast and treated her to one too, that cost two dollars […]

If you’ve ever been without money, or food, something very strange happens when you get a bit of money, a kind of madness. You don’t care. You can’t remember nothing but that there is the money for which you have been suffering. Now here it is. A lust takes hold of you. You see food in the windows. In imagination you eat hugely; you taste a thousand meals. You look in windows. Colors are brighter; you buy something to dress up in. An excitement takes hold of you. You know it is suicide but you can’t help it. You must have food, dainty, splendid food and a bright hat so once again you feel blithe, rid of that ratty gnawing shame.”   

My notes about my grandmother and her mother, who died in 1912 at age 32 in St. Finian’s Asylum for the Lunatic Poor in Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland. Cause of first admission: “Worry.”

My father’s father was said to be a musician passing through Boston in the spring of 1931. His name is not on the birth certificate.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. Site of ACT UP actions that changed my life and my relation to everything, including my Catholicism.

2014. Found photos. St. Finian’s in Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland. Private collection.

Anonymous girl in the West of Ireland, 1904 (anonymous photographer) from the Library of Congress public domain archives. Stonework: Boston Public Gardens.

2014. FSA photo, public domain, LOC Prints and Drawings. Part of my series “Dark White.”

It’s uncanny to look at those 1993–1994 collages (and those I made from 2005–2016) and see how they read in light of events like the attack on the World Trade Center, continuous war, demonization of Black and brown immigrants, the rise of the carceral state, the KKK in the White House, revelations about the Catholic Church (particularly in Boston, where I grew up), and my own evolution as a woman and an artist. The materials themselves seem to tell a story as they disintegrate. (Wite-Out cracks beautifully.)

February 26, 1993: “We met for a late lunch at Odeon, had the pears in wine for dessert, then went to the movies at the Angelika. As soon as we left the theater, we knew something was wrong. There wasn’t enough light, and something ominous, like an eclipse, made us look downtown. The towers of the World Trade Center were completely dark, the lights in the windows that are always on were off, and it made the twilight much darker, less benign. Someone tried to destroy the building with a truck bomb in the basement. The futility and pathos of that attempt.” From my book, The Public Garden: Poems and History, 2011.

1994

1994

1994

1994

1994

1994

1994

1994 (Caribbean New York)

1994

1994

1994

1994 (lines from my poem “Landscaping for Privacy,” set to music by composer Eve Beglarian)

In 1993 and ’94, I made most of my collages in my office on 42nd St., which, for six years, I shared with a sign painter, a survivor of Auschwitz who became like a father to me. Stanley was about seventy when I met him in the hallway of our building (he had a studio right next to my office); he gave me a photo of himself as a young man, taken in the displaced person’s camp in Germany after the war, before he and his wife (also a survivor) emigrated to New York via Palestine. He wanted me to see how handsome he’d been when he was young. After a recession, he closed his studio to save on the rent and asked me if he could store his supplies in my office. I cleared some shelves in a breakfront cabinet (which I still have — I brought it with me when I moved to California in 1995). Stanley died at ninety-six in 2011. This week, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I found a list of supplies he needed for one of his jobs taped onto a page of my notes about a conversation we had on the phone that night in 1991. I also found an account of a sunny afternoon when I was walking up Madison Avenue and saw him up on a ladder, painting letters on the glass under the awning at the Custom Shop, snowflakes of gold paint on his shoulders.

Stanley’s list of things to take to a sign-painting job.

The list where I found it taped into my 1991 notebook.

Stanley after the liberation of Auschwitz when he was in a displaced persons camp in Germany.

Stanley and me in his apartment on Queens Boulevard in 2006. I don’t remember who took this picture — his wife or my daughter. He was a source of life and love and people would ask him how he did it, considering what he’d been through and what he’d seen. “Amor fati,” he’d say. “Love your fate.”

The cabinet from our office at 50 East 42nd Street in Manhattan (now in Oakland).

And some of my notebooks.

In 1995, having exhausted the possibilities of Wite-Out, I started to expand my repertoire, going to the open-air Chelsea Flea Market to buy old photographs. In those days, they were cheap, just piled high on tables, and if it was about to rain, the vendors would sell them to me by the pound before they could turn to pulp. I brought home so many anonymous children. Most of them remained in my files for years, until I thought I knew where they might belong. I would cut up the photographs and move them around on my desk and then think about them all day while I was at work. It was like playing with paper dolls or puppets, but it was serious. At night I would go home and maybe move them a little bit.  This could go on for weeks before I finally understood where they belonged. Mine was an art of excision and juxtaposition (not surrealism).

Painting and color became more and more important to the work and play. When I look at my work on canvas now, I can remember the underpainting even if I can’t see it. When I want to start a new series these days, I paint lots of boards and rework them for a long time before I start to work with cut outs. Doing things by hand still matters a lot to me. Sometimes now I use my own photographs, and occasionally I just work with language, juxtaposing those panels with others. The work on the wall looks like banks of votives, I think, and reads, perhaps, like an essay or a long poem.

Circa 2004

2004

Circa 1999. Collection of Claudia Rankine.

2004

photo found at Chelsea Flea in 1998; back of 2004 ferry collage

2000

2004

2001

2004

Nuns’ Island, Galway, Ireland, 2018. Killian is the name of the manufacturer of these candles in Ireland, and underneath the banks of votives in this cathedral there were many empty candle boxes: “Killian Killian Killian.” Now I will always think of Kevin Killian when I look at this picture.

I also take breaks from making work with political and historical allusions to focus on minimalist luxury. I’m not much of a shopper, but I enjoy items from high-end sales catalogs once they are abstracted from the context of marketing. A pile of little discs or cardboard squares from Creative Reuse in Oakland can spark a new approach to size and surface.

Domestic series, circa 2008

2008

2008

2008

2008

2008

2011; Collection of Bill and Beverly Corbett.

2013

2013

2013

2013

2013

2013

2013

2012

And in my series American Songbook/Passerines, there is the grace of arabesques and annunciations and bird song, perhaps because, when I made these collages, I was aging out of childbearing and watching my daughter and her friends come into young womanhood.

2010 Swans, of course, are water fowl; but the other birds in this series are song birds (passerines).

2010

2010

2010 (“The language of birds”: W. H. Auden)

2010

In 2005, after reading a biography of Walker Evans (“the master of the edge”) and re-reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I made about fifty collages using FSA photos. I started using better materials (no more Wite-Out): acrylic paint and canvas-covered boards and found photos (knowing I was not, as Teju Cole would say, “the ideal provenance” for some of these images. The ethics of appropriation are an inherent aspect of this work, of course). I have a cache of family photos that my son found in a dumpster in Oakland and gave to me. I have not figured out a way to use them (honor them) in my work; perhaps I never will.

Who are you who will read these words

and study these photographs,

and through what cause,

by what chance, and for what purpose,

and by what right do you qualify to,

and what will you do about it?

— James Agee

I became more ambitious as I prepared for shows of my collages in Ireland (curated by Alice Lyons) in 2014 and in Oakland (with support from the Creative Work Fund) in 2015. I still work small (no larger than 8 x 10), but now I use archival-quality materials. I make things at the same paint-covered desk where I made the first collages in 1993 in Brooklyn. I dry the paintings on the kitchen counter. It’s important to me to work by hand in my notebooks and in my collages. I like the fact that there’s DNA — fingerprints and stains, breast milk, blood and tears, lipstick and wine — in the paintings and the notebooks and on the letters, documents, and ephemera I find in them.

2006 erasure; FSA public domain photo, Library of Congress Prints and Drawings.

2013

2013. Collection of Alice Lyons. Also published in Lapham’s Quarterly to illustrate an article by historian of religion Peter Green.

2013

2013

2013

2013; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans, public domain, Library of Congress.

2013; ibid.

2014; FSA, public domain, Library of Congress Prints and Drawings.

2013

2013

2014; FSA, public domain, Library of Congress Prints and Drawings.

2013

2013; for “Home and Away,” my Creative Work Fund project in the Fruitvale District, Oakland.

Photo by Ben Shahn, FSA, public domain, Library of Congress Prints and Drawings. I made this and the following collage in 2014. Of course, I love Kehinde Wiley’s 2018 portrait of President Barack Obama surrounded by flowers.

2014; FSA, public domain, Library of Congress Prints and Drawings.

2005; FSA, Library of Congress Prints and Drawings.

2005; FSA photo and page from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

2014 for Creative Work Fund project; excerpt from FSA photo, Library of Congress Prints and Drawings.

Memphis, Tennessee. Roy Stryker, head of the federal government’s massive FSA Project, would punch holes in the negatives of photos he didn’t want to use for public information purposes. All of these punched photos are now available with others for viewing and downloading on the Library of Congress web site.

New Orleans; FSA archives, Library of Congress

Louisiana Prison, FSA archives, Library of Congress.

FSA archives, Library of Congress Prints and Drawings.

2005; excerpt from an FSA photo, Library of Congress.

2010; Found photos. For RK. Collection of Bill and Beverly Corbett.

2010; found photo. The Fens, Boston. Collection of Bill and Beverly Corbett.

Some of the pictures RK found in a dumpster in Oakland and gave to me. I don’t know what to do with these. Maybe he will make something with them. Sometimes he and I make art together.

My friend Julie Carr has written about the politics of my work, my methods, and my materials (especially in the war collages in the Dark White series); Julie and other poets have adapted my collages for use on book covers, a form of collaboration I love.

Using language in collages, I also make poems in cento form (like this one, made from lines in a knitting manual).

Here is an ars poetica for what I do with paint and cut paper and canvas:

 

         Small Square

A blue peninsula, three sides and an edge,

the answer to triangulation, my issue —

frame and boundary versus

unholy trinity. This texture takes paint

well, this size is my size. One thousand

little things add up.

*

Saw yesterday at 5:15 p.m.:

a billowing cloud

moving across the suddenly

blue sky. A perfect

window, a SQUARE —

a word that should have

just four letters — opened up

in the body of the cloud,

a kind of stanza in air.

*

I didn’t gauge the distance from

the lip of the glass

to my own lip

and died laughing at what

fell in my lap.

The possibility of the personal

impersonal, the needle in my drink —

I can use it to scratch the surface.

*

The drone of radio rosaries

as I gouged a missalette —

Today I cut to ribbons

a list of “known abusers.”

One of those priests used to sit at our table

laughing with my mother,

eating cake. His thick cloud of hair

lit up the room. At his wake

my mother raved about it.

*

Pieces of men all over my desk,

two skies, you but never me,

the history of photography,

Wite-Out and varnish.

I like the precision of scissors.

Where is my pot of glue?

Where is my pen?

I should do something with this.

I dip my brush into my drink.

*

You with your lips in ruins,

saturated — I don’t do much with purple

so your windmill of a mind

may not show up this time.

The etymology of your soul is

your business.

*

When I was small but no longer young

I decided, building moats and dikes,

to use a neutral color, pale as a desert boot.

Even then I was famous for my values.

Now I mix glitter into cement.

You wouldn’t know me.

*

Remember my limited palette,

cracked panels and angels

entering frames like explanations.

Forgive my blue note, my halo, my

shitty materials.

Forgive me, and look at me

while I am talking to you,

or at least picture my face.

 

2019. Commissioned for Julie Carr’s Real Life: An Installation.

2019

Comments (1)

  • Absolutely wonderful! I’m going to revisit these pages any number of times for insight and inspiration…

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