Art

The Clever Concrete Poetry of a Benedictine Monk

Dom Sylvester Houédard, friends with the beatniks, littered his texts with references to god and prayer, and had a peculiar sense of humor.

Portrait of Dom Sylvester Houédard( 1964), taken at Signals Gallery in London (© Clay Perry, England & Co. Gallery, London)

In the 1960s, Dom Sylvester Houédard, a Benedictine monk who lived most of his adult life at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire, England, would sneak off on weekends to London, where he participated in the emerging concrete poetry scene. This backstory is certainly alluring and unusual, and upon learning it at his current show at Lisson Gallery, one scours the works for signs of religious piousness.

Though they are littered with references to god and prayer (“prayersticks” (1969); “the jesus christ light and power company inc.” (1971); “RED God” (1967), to list a few), Houédard’s texts drip with humor more so than traditional religious devotion. (He called them “typestracts,” concrete poetry created using a typewriter, and “laminates,” collages of magazine words sandwiched between laminate paper.) And while clever, his works are also sincere. Houédard spent time in Asia while serving with the British military and was deeply influenced by Eastern philosophy. The geometric shapes, centered and minimal compositions, and simplistic color choices are balanced, beautiful, and even utopian. His color palette of mostly blues, reds, and blacks evokes Mondrian and the De Stilji artists who used abstraction to elevate their artwork towards the spiritual. “To be creative through the arts means that you are actually responding to your inner spaces,” notes Charles Verey, biographer and scholar of Houédard, in the accompanying catalogue, “so there’s a very close connection actually, between spirituality and the spirit of creativity.”

Installation view of Dom Sylvester Houédard at Lisson Gallery, New York (image courtesy Lisson Gallery)

Houédard’s cut-and-pasted magazine collages recall Dada chance poems; his phrases are rooted in the counterculture movement of which he was a part. Friends with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, “dsh,” as he signed his works, spent much of his time in London, at the home of Lisson gallerist Nicholas Logsdail and his partner Fiona McLean. According to Logsdail, and many others, Houédard referred to himself as a “monknik,” a title that reconciled his identity as a religious figure with his Beatnik interests and lifestyle.

Dom Sylvester Houédard, “RED God” (1967), vinyl plastic laminate, 27.7 x 17 cm (© The Artist; Courtesy Lisson Gallery)

Despite his phrases having been written long before iPhones, they remind me of text messages and experiences with autocorrect. I cannot count the number of times, while rushing down the street, I’ve sent a quick text to a friend to inform them of my delay only to look at it moments later and see the message looks nothing like what I wrote. “Bushmen impose their verbal clicks on zulus,” could easily be a line from one of such garbled messages. But unlike these messages, Houédard’s titles are deliberately chosen. This text, in a 1971 work, appears in all lowercase — as with most of his typestracts — justified slightly to the right, just above the center of a roughly letter-sized, off-white page. Above the text is a blue square filled with lines that appear to vibrate as they crisscross. This kind of movement is present throughout his images. In another 1971 work with a similar composition, “the jesus christ light and power company inc.,” the vibrating square is cut across with what looks like a lightning rod, made by gaps in the dashes. Houédard’s precise mark making creates a still image that moves and floats on the page. Language is never still.

Dom Sylvester Houédard, “Tulip Label” (1967),  vinyl plastic laminate, 24.5 x 13.5 cm (© the Artist, courtesy Lisson Gallery)

Houédard’s laminated collages, visually very different than the typed works, also display slippage and movement. The glossy contact paper that holds them together makes them glisten in the gallery lighting, fitting considering Houédard was called these “cosmic dust laminate poems.” This is especially clear in “TULIP LABEL” (1967), which places his gridded geometric forms against a background of dust and various speckled materials, giving an otherworldly quality to the list of collaged words which hover over an atmospheric space: TULIP LABEL, BRONZE LABEL, OLIVE LABEL, GOLD LABEL, EMERALD LABEL, CRIMSON LABEL, WHITE LABEL, and DIAMOND LABEL. In her essay for the catalogue, Laura McLean-Ferris describes the fluid quality of these works: “Language slithers and puddles, bubbles slide down washed dishes, words and rain commingle with drips and jewelry.” Language is certainly a slippery form. Hard to pin down, easily muddled up, and easily miswritten, especially with the aid of our correcting machines.

The essays in the catalogue speculate as to why there has been a recent resurgence in interest in Houédard. They connect it to a rising awareness of the counterculture’s relationship to Eastern religion and spirituality. While that is perhaps what’s causing curators and researchers to bring his work more to light (with the publication of a scholarly monograph in 2012, in addition to a 2017 solo show at London gallery Richard Saltoun with an accompanying publication by Ridinghouse), it is its relevance to concerns of modern communication that give it staying power. Houédard wrote of concrete poetry: “concrete fractures linguistics, atomises words into incoherence, constricting language to jewel-like semantic areas where poet & reader meet in maximum communication with minimum words.” We are in an age of maximum communication with minimum words. But unlike poetry, our quick words tend to fail as we are bombarded by fake news, Twitter bots, and fast replies. Houédard, like other concrete poets, forces us to slow down how we read and see, his vibrating visuals and witty texts opening up the space between words and meaning.

Dom Sylvester Houédard, “the jesus christ light and power company inc.” (1971), typewritten material, typestract on paper, 29.8 x 21 cm, framed: 41.5 x 32.5 cm (© The Artist; Courtesy Lisson Gallery)

Dom Sylvester Houédard continues at Lisson Gallery (136 10th Ave, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 16. 

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