Friday, 21 March 2008

Ed Ruscha at the Gagosian and Art Institute of Chicago

Ed Ruscha's latest paintings were on show at the Gagosian in King's Cross. Andrew and I went along to take a look.

Two weeks later, seemingly on a mission to chase Ed's work around the globe, I saw his retrospective in the Art Institute of Chicago. It was a great show - nearly all his books were there, hanging on wires from the wall, the pages fanning and grey with repeated fingering. A school group was pouring over them, moving from one publication to the next, completely unable to tear themselves away to move on to the rooms of photography or painting. They reveled in the laconic weirdness of the work:

Boy 1: Is there a story?
Boy 2: [Whispers in ear]
Boy 1: Seriously? … In that book-thingy?
Boy 3: [Mumbles] …salad and vinegar…. [Mumbles]
Boy 2: Oil! …Poured all over her body!
Boy 1: Seriously? That’s a little creepy.
Boy 2: Then he kissed her hand.
Boy 1: There's one with cakes too.
Boy 3: Okay, let’s go sit on the bench.
Boy 2: There was a bench?

Monday, 10 March 2008

Philip Larkin: Toad Prince

Philip Larkin loathed performing his work. Introducing one rare recording caught on tape, he announces that it will be both his first and his last. The poet so admired the inexhaustible improvisation skills of the jazz greats whose vinyl output he reviewed for many years (collected in All That Jazz, 1970) - it’s ironic that he resolutely refused to record his own work. Paul Farley, in last week’s broadcast on Radio 4, explained that Larkin lacked as much confidence in his voice as in his looks. Having abandoned his Yorkshire accent for RP early on, when reading he also had to make a great effort to swallow his stutter, which appears in extant recording as a ‘bush-man’s-like click’.

These rare, nervy, formal readings are now supplemented by recently discovered material, recorded in a garage by Larkin with the help of a pal on a reel-to-reel machine. John Weeks, Larkin's drinking companion, also happened to be a skilled sound engineer. It is compelling to hear Larkin reading with the truth and feeling that comes to the relaxed performer. ‘Toad’ is full of mordant pathos, the slightly querulous note of self-righteousness. The recordings could easily justify the praise Larkin once lavished on Pee Wee Russell ('How Am I To Know?', 1966): ‘His timing is perfect, his phrasing oratorical without being melodramatic, his tonal distortions involuntary, and all conceived in that vein of unique, hard-hitting lyricism the Commodore crew made their own.’

Like Larkin, I used to be uneasy with the sound of my own voice. Last week I visited the South Bank Centre to record some poems published in Painted, Spoken for the Poetry Library. Dean ushered me into the Violet Room. For Sigmund Freud, violets, semantically akin to the French ‘violer’, were heavily suggestive danger and intrusion. I suspect The South Bank Centre did not factor this association in when naming the venue to soothe performers' nerves. Things have moved on since the time of the reel-to-reel machine. Freedie the sound engineer was able to cut and splice my readings to erase all the tongue twisters and slips not to mention the noise from trains which shook the room as they rolled over Embankment Bridge. Freddie expressed reservations about this enhanced performance. She felt that the original reading, with its moments of human imperfection rather than air-brushed glamour, had more jive, more soul.

'The Batik Block' and 'Cowrie Hunters' can be seen in Painted Spoken Number 16 and will be available to download from the Poetry Library at

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Falcon Bride by Carolyn Trant

Carolyn Trant came by the shop to show us some recent work. Carolyn is one of my favourite book artists – what is there not to like about someone who creates a book called My Mackerel Lover? She has been extremely busy recently. The Falcon Bride, an installation or ‘room-sized book’, was exhibited last year at the Star Gallery in Lewes. It is book art taken to the very boundaries of the gallery space, an orchestration of found objects, painted books and sculptures, works which were created after a visit to Kracow.

The birds of the title were inspired by the mummified falcons in the Department of Ancient Art at the Princes Czartoryski Museum. These falcons appear frequently in her new work, interchanged with the figures of decaying Dickensian brides. The exhibition prompted several books, including Kracow Pages and Boat Book, which range from unique works bound in conventional codex form to multi-dimensional boxed work and prints – all imbued with images of skeletal remains or departing vessels in sombre greys and sepias.

Over lunch at the Poetry Café Carolyn tells me that the works in the show were ‘constructed from basic organic materials such as feather, bone, wax, wood, or recycled paper.’ Such transient and unexpected materials are also present in the book works – some of which feature collages of lace, dried grape stems, scrim and newsprint, as well as a free attitude to washes of paint. The organic approach is also apparent in another, more conventional two-volume work, Hunting the Wren and Love Poems and Curses by James Simpson, in which Carolyn’s illustrations take the form of collograph prints made with the impression of fern leaves and twigs. Carolyn delights not only in the texture of found materials but also in the range of papers available to her, and in this book she interleaves the printed text with papers featuring natural inclusions or punctured with holes by the maker. These are sensitively used to suggest sere winter hedgerows, the world of birds and their predators.

Carolyn has also added to her recent series of Carnival Boxes, exquisitely made reliquaries each containing a concertina of prints inside. I particularly like the Dr Caligari version, the varnished millboard box with its hand-incised design in the lid depicting a shadowy studio lined with frames and its painted borders. The cut-away base reveals a further collaged compartment, on which the sequence of prints joined with buckram hinges rests. In true carnival tradition, the colourful images, which at first glance seem joyous, incorporate sinister political processions, the forms of mythical animals, fierce beasts and masked or naked figures.