National Poetry Month reminds us that some words can boogie, and dance they do at two exhibitions on the Lower East Side. A fiery tango between word and image takes place in solo shows by both Natalie Czech and Jeff Gibson. This tango — like when a caption twists an image’s meaning, or an illustration shapes how you picture the words you’re reading — can be tense, competitive and at times even semiotically combative. But just as the tango feeds off of two partners’ intensity, this art benefits from the back and forth.
At Ludlow 38, operated by the Goethe-Institut New York, Natalie Czech exhibits photographs of marked pages of text in her first US solo exhibition, I have nothing to say. Only to show. For each work in a series called A small bouquet by Frank O’Hara (2010–12), she has circled words in oil pastel to form the image of a bouquet. This literary flowers-in-a-vase-image is taken from a calligram from the early 1950s by O’Hara, “A Small Bouquet.” Each text that Czech uses was written by a different author who accepted her challenge to create a chunk of prose out of which O’Hara’s calligram could be derived. Vastly different content, ranging from a meandering theoretical discourse to vivid descriptions of a cave in the underworld, all find a way to accommodate Czech’s word search for O’Hara’s poem.
It’s wild how the image overlay of the O’Hara poem influences the experience of the prose. For example, in “A small bouquet by Andrew Berardini” (2011), the reader gleans a river of hot lava, drinks diamond wine and learns about an underworld ruled by an evil queen. The text stirs up strikingly vivid imagery. Although reading through the prose is partially an act of ignoring O’Hara’s flower calligram, the exercise nevertheless primes the brain to think about imagery and to consider allowing words to richly paint a scene in the mind’s eye.
Jeff Gibson’s installation Statusfaction (2012), at Stephen Stoyanov Gallery, revels in the whimsy of sarcastic psycho-babble captions. The show features two corresponding grids of framed phrases and images. Gibson seems to invite viewers to jump back and forth, reading a caption in position A2 on the first grid and then looking over to image A2 on the second grid to see the corresponding illustration.
The connections between the words and images are humorous and multilayered. Each phrase is compromised of a fake psycho-sociological term with a silly psychoanalytic definition. The corresponding imagery functions as an encyclopedia illustration of the term. For example, “Cultural Vivacity: A monkish devotion to the absence of meaning” is paired with a selection of roller-coaster images. There’s nothing monkish or ascetic about a roller-coaster thrill ride; it’s meaningless, existential fun.
The tango between word and image runs throughout both of these shows, and it’s exciting to watch how the two elements interact with one another. For example, in Gibson’s show, the roller-coasters pepper the word “monkish” with extra irony, while the artist’s pithy phrases transform roller-coaster images into an existential mediation on the meaninglessness of a joyride. In Czech’s show, the omnipresent calligram of the flowers awakens the reader to be more attentive to the images in the writing. And the act of retracing circled words to form the poem, or trying to weed out that layer to focus on the prose, becomes its own visually engaging game.
Natalie Czech’s I have nothing to say. Only to show. is on view at Ludlow 38 (38 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side) through May 6. Jeff Gibson’s Statusfaction also continues at Stephan Stoyanov Gallery (29 Orchard Street, Lower East Side) through May 6.