Blame it on the plague or getting older and accumulating a bunch of crap I didn’t know what to do with, but sometime late into 2020 I started cutting up old drawings, homework assignments, letters, and other ephemera to make pictures.
Restrictions and limits are vital for art and if you remember life in 2020 it was one locked door and electrified fence after another. Since I was a child, my main way of talking to the world was by looking at it and drawing it. Now I was in my house day and night with no one to look at but myself and no scenery but the four walls and whatever was visible out the windows. I’d moved to a ground level dwelling a month into lockdown which was a blessing in almost every way except offering much of a view. I had to turn inward.
I started by raiding my flat file for failed old art I hadn’t tossed. I cut out or covered up the parts of the compositions that didn’t work or mashed several pieces together to see if they’d generate a spark. Soon there were bins of this and that by my drawing table waiting to go under the knife.
Since starting to write about twenty years ago, I’d always wanted to fuse the visible with the verbal. All my books are full of pictures but I’ve searched for some way to make the two languages into one. This new (to me) way jamming bits and pieces of text and image pointed to a possible way to do that.
It still feels like a new thing but I’m feeling my way forward. The pieces in this show represent the tip of an iceberg I’m planning to map for years to come.
Before I wrote anything other than a homework assignment or personal letter, I worked a breakfast shift at a restaurant down the street from my apartment in Chicago. One of the regular tasks before unlocking the front door was writing out specials on a blackboard in colored chalk. The first few times I did it, it took forever. Half an hour or more to list ingredients for an omelette, French toast, and whatever the third thing was. I agonized over the haphazardly slanting block letters. I ran out of real-estate before completing a phrase and had to moisten a paper towel, wipe all the words away and start over. Some mornings I’d break out in a preemptive cold sweat just thinking about that blackboard on my morning walk to work.
I’ve drawn and painted ever since I can remember. It’s my primary relationship to the world. I also grew up in a home where reading was valued and expected ahead of even rudimentary chores like cleaning one’s room. Books have always been a constant but the idea that I might make my own one day was never even a glimmer. Writing came into my life through the passenger door of a taxicab.
My first job after earning a BFA in painting and printmaking was driving a cab in Boston. It was the way I paid my bills for twelve of my first twenty post-college years. In between bouts of driving, I waited tables and poured drinks. It was during one of these non-taxi interludes that my struggle with the specials board took place. The problem, I realized, after several frustrating failed attempts, was that I was thinking of my task as writing. I was thirty years old and all I knew when I put pen to paper was my lousy penmanship. A confident and distinctive instrument when rendering the room I sat in or my neighbor on the bus, that same pen became an awkward, uncomfortable rudiment while forming the simplest sentence. The trick was to think of the blackboard as a picture. Once the letters to Chilaquiles or Eggs Benedict or Chicken-Fried Steak became marks and shapes rather than parts of written language, the blackboard sang rather than sputtering as it had before.
My first stretch of cab driving—which had ended three years prior—was often on my mind. Scenes from memorable fares replayed in my head all the time, drunken phrases, dangerous and hilarious individuals haunted my mind. They nagged at me to be turned into some kind of creative expression. But what could I do? I was a painter who worked from direct observation and the phantoms that wouldn’t let me be were long in the rearview.
I took a bus to an old neighborhood far from mine and bought a refurbished Smith-Corona manual typewriter. At the time certain city agencies were still using electric machines rather than computers, but my model was decades past current utility. I thought that maybe this primitive device that made a distinctive sound and imprinted physically into paper with every stroke might bridge the gap that separated the verbal from the visual. I drew some scenes from memory, then cut-and-pasted minimal typed descriptions around the images. After a few months of messy trial and error, I had enough pages for a zine. I called it Hack and I printed and assembled it at the Kinko’s down the street. My very first creative writing effort.
Getting back behind the wheel a couple years later unleashed a flood of words. The zine became a blog, then a book. Writing became a regular part of my creative routine. I even began to get paying gigs reviewing books, movies, art shows, and the like for newspapers and websites. But visual art remained my default mode and almost always provided a way into the words. To date I’ve rarely published anything that wasn’t journalism without including at least one picture.
The relationship between text and image is fluid and subject to regular renegotiation and rethinking. As often as not, a drawing next to some blocks of words doesn’t illuminate or illustrate them so much as being counterpoint or polyphony. The longer I’ve worked in these two different languages, the more I’ve sought ways to merge them into one, or at least a whole made up of parts that neither cede authority nor seek to dominate or control one another. It’s not necessarily seamlessness I’m after but some kind of polyglot composition. A thing that works on more than one level.
During lockdown, away from the service industry or the public spaces that make up so much of the subject-matter of my artwork, I shifted my attention to personal archives for inspiration. Combining fragments of old homework assignments, childhood sketches, and other personal ephemera into visual compositions became my new way of working. Without setting out to do so, this new approach has allowed me mash text and image together in ways I’d never before considered. Now letters, words, sometimes whole phrases can read as drawn marks or even brushstrokes and patches of color or penciled line sometimes serve to pause verbal thoughts.
I’m back at the specials board but no longer to sell breakfast. Now the competing typefaced and hand-scrawled words advertise more oblique fare. I don’t need to worry about narrative coherence as I might in an essay or even a book because I know that the meaning, or at least the resonant friction here will come from the intuitive clash of disparate sources. But just as I felt freed to list food with chalk on a blackboard by tricking myself into not thinking it was writing, I must now guard against getting locked in a procedure where I see the steps ahead. Like watching your legs will make you fall on your face.
I paint, I write, and sometimes I do this other thing that’s both at once. I got here by trying to tell people what they could eat and make it look like a picture at the same time.
Poetry’s a hard nut to crack. I grew up with a father who could recite dozens of poems by heart in Russian. There are couplets lodged in my head ever since. They’re in deep and will autoplay without prompting at sometimes inappropriate times. I’m not complaining. If you’re going to have an earworm, it may as well be profound and be in rhyming meter.
I’ve never written a poem that I can recall. I wouldn’t know how to start. It’s a form of expression that probably has to choose you rather than the other way around. Since I’ve been writing books, a few times my bio when I’ve been invited to read has listed me as a poet. I always make sure to correct the organizers’ error.
Poems in English, especially from 20th century on, seem a completely different animal than the Russian ones I grew up on. The two languages are so very different. English is the tongue of commerce. It’s suited perfectly for selling. Whereas hearing ad copy in Russian makes me laugh or cringe, sometimes both at once.
Still, I’ve been trying to figure it out. Puzzling at the spare clauses scattered minimally across pages. It’s an education in which I always feel like a beginner. The rules shift as quickly as I get a handle on them.
I met the poet Mark Turcotte fifteen years ago through someone I’ve had to cut out of my life. It’s that way so often—good things coming out of bad. We don’t see one another so much but seem to have an unspoken understanding. I don’t feel that way around people often. Maybe a weary detente with a world that doesn’t feel so welcoming. He probably sees it differently.
Mark is one of the best out-loud readers of their own work I’ve ever heard. There’s a gravitational command to his performance. When it’s happening it’s like the only possible voice in the room. There’s just no question or doubt. The polar opposite of the average literary reading, which is a necessary evil suffered through to sell books.
I’ve been bugging Mark a long time to tape a talk and finally wore him down a couple weeks ago. He hasn’t put out a book in a long time. We get into that in the conversation I recorded in his beautiful apartment, steps from the lake in Rogers Park. This is his last one. Pick up a copy.
Here’s a patron of the arts, captured at my Rainbo Club opening by John McNaughton. The show’s been extended a week. It’s up through August 5th. (a checklist for your reference)