For instance, I hold
A simple whisper
the trigger on the
limbs of another
—Nicole LaRue, “For Instance”
Poetry is an art form, but one that essentially stands in opposition to visual art. Calligraphy might be shown on a gallery wall, to be appreciated for how it looks, but the words it represents can also be transposed to a mechanical presentation: an audio book in which it is read out loud, or the computer this is being written on. Or it could be transposed to a typewriter. A typewriter is what Jack Kerouac used in 1951 to write On the Road, one of the seminal novels of the twentieth century, on a single, continuous scroll of paper 120-feet long. Recently, the original toured the country, shown in a vitrine like an Asian landscape scroll, and ended up on permanent display at the Lilly Library rare book collection at Indiana University in Bloomington.
The original of On the Road is one of three relatively recent developments in art that anticipate the Blackout Poetry of Nicole LaRue. Two others are collage and found art. What LaRue uses is a technique she labels “Blackout,” in essence an inversion of collage wherein the parts to be reused are left where found, not cut out and not glued down elsewhere (the meaning of “collage”), but highlighted by blacking out the chosen word’s surroundings. She finds, rather than assembles, a poem by stripping it out of the printed prose of other writers. Having blacked out most of the words from a prose text — in the case of “For Instance,” the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov — she removes the page, leaving the evidence of its having originally been bound in a book along one edge, scratches out but does not obliterate the title at the top of the page, and presents it framed like a work of art. The original arrangement of the words on the page remains as evidence of the process, but also animates the poem in a graphic form that was used by numerous twentieth century poets, notably Dylan Thomas. The title of the exhibition, You Could Have Said Something Beautiful Instead, broadly addresses the authors of her source materials, suggesting that what they wrote wasn’t as beautiful as the words employed had the potential for being.
That, anyway, is the narrative pretense of LaRue’s Blackout poems. Close examination will disclose that these are almost certainly copies of the originals, which she may very well have transcribed with a typewriter. They’ve also been glued to the back cover of a torn book to make their sources more apparent. In other words, it’s a presentation convention of her creation, which in no way diminishes her artistry. That said, future graduate students might begin their academic careers seeking out the sources.
Not content to limit herself to framed poems, LaRue also uses snippets of text to cover hand mannequins, such as are used in stores to display gloves or jewelry. These works use text more like clouds of meaning, since words wrap around the hand’s surface, making it easier on the eye to jump from one line to the next. Here, as in the framed versions, their titles imply source material, including “White Power,” which might relate to the black paint that underlies the text and suggests they comment on racist writing. Here the art may connect to the recent observation of how much American infrastructure was built by slave labor — from the White House on down. Also present, “The Unhappy Gays” and “Malleus Maleficarum,” or “Hammer of Witches,” a well-known treatise on witchcraft, together suggest advocacy for those abused in so many texts, whom LaRue implies could just as easily have been presented sympathetically by authors of a more positive bent.
Texts and books are popular subjects for artistic experimentation. In gallery presentation, however, they tend to be inaccessible, shown for example in a vitrine like On the Road. An alternative for the artist is to arrange the books so their cover treatments become the point of an exhibition. LaRue has done something similar with numerous small objects, some collections of booklets and others, ultimately sculptural objects. She arrays these along a wall, in boxes that suggest bookshelves, under four general headings: Test Tube Works, Square Box Works, Long Narrow Box Works, and Raised Block Works. We can’t be sure without touching them, but they don’t appear to open or contain accessible contents. Like the reliquaries of Donna Mintz recently shown at Julie Nester Gallery and reviewed in these pages, they use words sparsely to identify the location of uncirculated thoughts and ideas. In similar, more elaborate ways, Nicole LaRue reveals how language, used and misused, determines how we think, what we feel, and ultimately, why we act.
Nicole LaRue: You Could Have Said Something Beautiful Instead, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Feb. 25