Baffling messages abound in picture-poem exhibit

November 30, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Guston and Coolidge When: Mondays through Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays noon to 5 p.m., through Dec. 31.

Where: Meyerhoff Gallery in Fox Building, Maryland Institute, Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues.

Call: 225-2280.

The picture is a cartoonish rendering of a jumble of objects -- a hand and possibly a building and some magnets and a shoe heel (maybe) and a horn shape -- looking as if they've just fallen down into a pile. Underneath the picture is a text that reads ". . .SQUARE TIGHT. SOMETHING NEXT TO ELSE. EXERTS, LIGHTS, NOTCHES. Had a brick handle, it to space the yard. And no one leaves who allows the mess."

What does this mean? Something? Nothing? Everything? Is it a cryptic, Beckett-like cry of anguish in the void, or is it drivel? Before deciding it's drivel, give "Drawings from the Philip Guston and Clark Coolidge Exchange" a little time.

Between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s, artist Guston and poet Coolidge established a friendship, out of which emerged a sort of informal collaboration. Guston, who had been an abstract artist, was returning to a type of figuration that has been described as "between satire and Goya-like grotesquerie." Coolidge, who had been experimenting with word parts, was evolving more toward words and sentences. Debra Bricker Balken, who wrote the catalog essay for this show, states that both artist and poet "opted to re-root their work in representation."

Coolidge sent his work to Guston, who, Balken writes, "would in turn incorporate lines, passages or complete poems into pre-existing drawings or produce something new." The result is 43 drawing/poem works that combine Guston's style, which might be described as menacing comic-book, with Coolidge's texts, which often seem to hover somewhere near the edge of meaning.

Some of these works are more or less clear. "To draw is to make be more than one start. . . ." is combined with a drawing in which two irregular rectangles evolve into the disembodied head with one big eye that frequents the drawings.

Some seem as if they're penetrable so long as you don't try too hard to make actual sense of them. A drawing of the same head, an insect-like tree and a partial clock accompanies the passage: "To release it needs a grip so strong one is possessed to come free."

And some are completely undecipherable. But that doesn't mean they're unsuccessful. These words and pictures taken together add up to a kind of absurdist drama in which a consciousness tries to function in a chaotic, destroyed world where nothing, not even language, works the way it used to -- a consciousness that tries to find meaning where there is no meaning, but, since it doesn't know that, goes on trying.

They move in on you, these picture-poems; after a while it's not quite so easy to call them drivel as it was at first.

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