The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue

NATALIE CZECH I Have Nothing to Say, Only to Show

There is much to read at Natalie Czech’s solo New York debut, and most of it is American poetry; there is also plenty of opportunity to gaze, since Czech’s choice medium is photography. One will quickly find it’s a struggle, however, to perform these two activities in tandem. As Czech has noted, when you look at a photograph you cease to read, and when you start to read you stop seeing the picture. Quite so, though what she leaves out of this equation is the brain’s natural inclination to take all of this information in at once, resulting in a ping-ponging experience that shuffles the eyes and mind back and forth between reading and seeing and seeing and reading.

Natalie Czech, “A small bouquet by Maia Gianakos,” 2011. Oil pastel on C-Print, 85 x 60 cm. Courtesy the Artist / Ludlow 38. Copyright: NatalieCzech / VG Bild-Kunst.
On View
Ludlow 38
March 30 – May 6, 2012
New York

Czech was invited to exhibit by the resident curator at Ludlow 38, Clara Meister, whose focus for 2012 is artists dealing with issues of transition and translation, particularly as these themes relate to the word and image. Walter Benjamin is invoked in the title, I have nothing to say, only to show, which indicates from the outset that the writing one encounters will be less didactic than a montage of literary elements.

Czech is exhibiting two complimentary bodies of work in which poems emerge out of prose. The first series a visitor encounters, “A Small Bouquet” (2011), takes a calligram by Frank O’Hara (of the same title) as its starting point. Czech invited seven writers to plant O’Hara’s picture-poem into a text of their own making. The only stipulation was that the writers retain the exact placement of O’Hara’s words on the page. Unsurprisingly, the content of each text is as idiosyncratic as the overall look of each effort is consistent. Czech photographs the writers’ texts, produces C-prints, and in a final, beautifully simple gesture, circles and outlines O’Hara’s original calligram with an oil pastel, offsetting horizontally aligned compositions in black-and-white with lines of color that meander up and down the page.

 What I find most compelling about Czech’s “Bouquet” series is that she has essentially created a space where the creative work of poet, writer, and artist come together in an exceptionally symbiotic way. Each piece represents a four-way intersection that includes the aforementioned three, plus the viewer. The catch is that viewers can’t travel every road at once; they must choose which aspects of the artwork to focus on and which to ignore. This may be a broad truth—half of the act of observation consists of choosing what not to look at—but it is especially pronounced in Czech’s word-pictures.

The work is slightly troublesome in that its weakest point is also its driving force.  Her generative process gives way to an inflexible formulaic sensibility that threatens to reduce the artistic exercise into a kind of quasi-word game that can only turn out one way. Except for the writers’ efforts, there is no sense of searching, of discovery, of much more than a conceptual program designed to produce a prefigured result.

Czech’s second series, an ongoing project titled “Hidden Poems” (2010–present), is similarly situated in the space between visual and linguistic information, though in a way that is more inventive and playful. Her process here might be described as the reverse of William Burroughs’s cut-up method. Rather than taking scissors to a newspaper or magazine and letting the random assemblage of text generate a poem, Czech seeks out pre-existing poems (short ones by Kerouac, e. e. cummings, and Robert Creeley, to name a few) scattered like birdseed amidst the prose of the press. She highlights individual letters or entire words, striking out others where necessary, to draw out a “hidden” text, as if it were some sort of code.

Often the poem and article are linked in terms of content. For example, in an article about a solar eclipse at sunrise, Czech finds the Creeley poem “Night time”: “When light leaves / and sky is black, / no nothing / to look at, / day’s done. / That’s it.” In a published artist statement written by Robert Irwin on the experience of the void as being neither absence nor emptiness, Czech locates this quippish poem by Kerouac: “there is nothing there because I don’t care.” These pieces are like literary matryoshka dolls, but the act of locating the poem does more than reveal it as nested within a larger piece of prose—it transforms that prose from a finished text into a site of linguistic fertility. How many articles are pregnant with poems no one has noticed? Is there a poem hiding in this review? Maybe.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues