A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance
A conversation with cover artist Anne Gorrick
MT: You are a painter as well as a poet; in fact, the covers of your books feature your artwork. These paintings, and your paintings in general, as I understand it, are principally done in encaustic. How does encaustic painting work? Are there analogies between this method and the materials you employ on writing?
AG: Encaustic (from the Greek encaustikos meaning “to burn”) paints are made from wax and pigment, with varying amounts of resin to make the paint hard and durable. You paint with it while it’s melted, not too hot (terrible fumes – sometimes I get an encaustic cough in the winter) and not too cold (unworkable). The Greeks invented this method and used it in their wildly masterful Fayum mummy portraits (100 BC to 200AD). Then the medium was lost or overlooked for centuries. Modern use really began again with Jasper Johns in the 1950s.
In a wonderful coincidence, I happen to live near R & F Handmade Paints, one of only a handful of places that make encaustic paints and teach its slippery and picky techniques. About 10 years ago, I collaborated on an artists’ book with one of R&F’s teachers, Cynthia Winika. I met her when she helped teach a class I was in. When another student said flippantly that you could never make a book using encaustic, we both said at the same time, “Oh yes you can!” We didn’t even know each other yet. That book eventually became “Swans, the ice,” she said, made through the Women’s Studio Workshop.
In both my writing and visual art, I tend to work in series. I’ve got to cover a lot of ground making small changes to arrive at ends that are often repetitive and musical. After I wrote Kyotologic, I made scores of long scrolls that hang in my studio. I began with sumi ink, graphite and pastels, eventually working over the Hosho paper in encaustic monotype. It was as if I wrote the book, and then had to rewrite it visually. A fragment of one of those scrolls ended up being the cover for that book.
MT: Can you speak a little about the influence of Japanese painting and writing on your work? Your first book, Kyotologic, was a reworking of Sei Shonogon’s Pillow Book. Your second book, I-Formation (Book 1), comprises two sections: the first of which is focused on the changes to a garden throughout a year – an idea that seems in itself very Japanese.
AG: I am by no means an expert on Japanese literature or art. But. I always felt that text was strangely left out of Western art. I felt that same way, having grown up Catholic, when I noticed early that women never went near the altar. Something fundamental was left out. But as soon as your turn your head east, text becomes inextricable from image. There is no division. So that is my tropism, that’s where and why I look.
The garden section of I-Formation (Book 1) is named after a very playful, postmodern garden in Japan called The Site of Reversible Destiny, made by the Japanese artist Shusaku Arakawa and his American partner Madeleine Gins. The title expresses their idea that no one should ever have to die. I’ve never been there, but their surrealist garden looks like a sculpture-strewn golf course. You would as easily find a meticulously pruned row of trees, as you would upturned sofas.
When I wrote these garden poems, I ransacked my diaries for gardening notes. So my own garden came first. Then the notes. Then I heavily processed this text and made poems out of them. Of course all Genesis stories begin in a garden…
MT: The poems in I-Formation involve the re-working and repetition of words and phrases, creating the sense of an evolving pattern. Does pattern play a role in your writing and your art generally? How are you concerned with pattern-making and pattern-recognition?
AG: When I was a kid, my family spent part of every summer near the ocean. I got to watch the Atlantic breathe in and out for two weeks at a stretch. Every wave is the same and every wave is different, gradually becoming larger or calmer over the course of a tide. I also spent nine years studying piano. I was my teacher’s worst student, but I came away with a great love, and a great fascinated capacity for subtle changes over long periods of time.
The garden poems in the first book of I-Formation show where my processual interests eventually led. The second section (the Michelangelo Variations) was written at the very beginning of my processual intent, when I had less at my fingertips in terms of computer-driven possibilities. Each section of the Michelangelo Variations was written as several shorter poems. These short poems were put through various demolitions, sliced into pieces, and these pieces were all reordered and folded into a larger piece. I’m currently working on using this process on a much larger scale for a long work about the American desert.
As I said earlier, the garden poems began as thievings from my diaries. Once I excavated the text I wanted to work with, I’d feed the text repeatedly through the online Babelfish translator, in and out of several languages, to make the language breakdown enough to where I had to find sense out of nonsense. Like getting lost in a forest and having to find one’s way out again. A friend suggested I used Google’s translator, but it was just too accurate to be any fun. The fun occurs in the inaccuracies, the mistakes, the wrong turns. I always remember Bruce Nauman saying that he wondered what would happen if he took his seemingly perceived “worst” ideas and followed them through to their ends, instead of picking the “best” ones. That we miss out on so much because of that false attachment/perception to “best.”
So I make long worksheets of incomprehensible “translations,” and then pick through to find what’s interesting to me. It’s a little like being one of Agnes Varda’s gleaners.
MT: You also create artist’s books and folios where paint and text are layered against one another. Can you talk a little about how you came to these forms?
AG: I got really bored with what I could create with my laser printer and on a computer screen. That’s when I began to study printmaking and encaustic painting at the Women’s Studio, so I’d have a larger field to work out my ideas. Encaustic is particularly suited to working with text because of its transparency, slowing moving from translucency to opacity. Text can peek through and be covered up. Accidents around this display and hidden-ness or secrecy are particularly moving to me. You can type on thin Japanese paper, apply some encaustic and suddenly the page is see-through. Then you can hide things again with more layers, or oil paint, or a splatter of graphite powder.
At my computer, my work smells like nothing. Maybe dust. When I move into the visual, there’s the smell of wax and oil paint, of a heat gun, the unwelcome smoke coming up from a plugged-in frying pan or my large aluminum palate. How the paper makes my hands dry. The sumi ink or handmade walnut ink (thanks to Jenny Fox!) gets under my fingernails.
MT: You say that after you wrote Kyotologic, you worked on paintings that were, essentially, a visual re-write of the book? Did this happen with I-Formation as well? Was there a visual working-out of the ideas of the book, as well as a written work?
AG: Yes, there was a visual “rewrite” of I –Formation. But it wasn’t a planned thing. It was more like a response to some things going on in the background. At the time I was putting the book manuscript together, I took great pleasure in Jasper Johns’ series of “cross-hatch” paintings. He had found a curiously patterned detail in a painting by Edvard Munch, and explored and exploded this detail into entire paintings. I couldn’t apprehend the pattern visually, so I began to copy it over and over to see how it worked. It turned out that there were a lot of resonances between the “cross-hatch” of the visual work, and the accruing repetitions in the written work.
MT: It seems that in both your written and visual work you are concerned with the “accidental” — with layering, transposing, translating, and then “gleaning” for the result. Forming an “I” out of what the I notices, collects, determines to be interesting. In this way, the work relies both on chance and design. You say that you came to the processes you used in writing I-Formation out of a sense of boredom with yourself, but it also seems like what you’ve come up with is a way of getting at your self from a deeper, sideways angle. Have you had any revelations about yourself in doing this kind of writing (being surprised at what you notice)? Have themes emerged? If the found is the artificial, what are you finding/creating here?
AG: One thing I think about a lot is the poetic notion of the “I,” and how the self might be simply a series of curatorial choices, that it’s fluid, that the poetic “voice” is something to play with rather than solidify. The poetic “I” can be an artificial construct, a created entity.
I’ve always loved the quote by golfer Arnold Palmer: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” As a tennis player, I see that at work all the time: how practice invites the crazy chance occurrence.
Chance is definitely my best friend in my work. I’m all about randomizing the surface. I am ardent toward the films of Man Ray, especially those in which he collaborates with the poet Robert Desnos. In Les Mystères du château de Dé,” Man Ray begins with a quote (possibly by Desnos, but it’s not clear): “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance.” And later, “Prestigious, as if bearing the seal of a strange destiny, a castle.” Often when I write, I make long elaborate worksheets of nearly incomprehensible text that result from various processual techniques. I scan through these heaps to find the chance find, the gorgeous treasure, the thing I don’t already know. Through practice, the luck. I have been surprised at how friends have found my work to be musical, and I notice that the work has become almost notational. How even though I was the worst piano student on earth for nine years, I bring those years of noticing to my written work.
I like to collaborate with people to explore luck and possibility, and extend my own visual and verbal vocabularies. I co-curate the electronic journal Peep/Show with my very innovative friend, Lynn Behrendt. Working on this project with her means I’m continuously navigating and learning about her curatorial choices. I’m also doing a verbal/visual collaboration (we refer to them as “co-labs,” which I think of as “co-laboratories”) with the architect and visual poet Scott Helmes. With both Lynn and Scott, my artistic/textual worlds have gotten bigger, and less compartmentalized.
MT: Do you view your work, both visual and written, as a single, continuing project (for lack of a better word). Or are there distinct “chapters”? ideas you work out and then lay aside?
AG: I get stuck on playing with certain processual techniques (Bablefish, anagrams, Google searches). Once I “use it up” for a time, I break away from that language/technique, and eventually come back refreshed later. Sometimes I write individual poems, but mostly I write down long rabbitholes. The first part of I-Formation is a formal continuation of Kyotologic. The second book of I-Formation will contain a relationship map of about 50 poems where I anagram someone’s name to within an inch of its life, and come up with poems constructed from the anagrammed words. The text seems to follow the technique, which is really interesting to me. I’m going to have to think about this for about a year and get back to you.
Maureen Thorson is a lawyer-poet living in Washington, DC. Her first book, Applies to Oranges, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse.
Anne Gorrick curates the reading series Cadmium Text, featuring innovative writing from in and around New York’s Hudson Valley. She lives in West Park, New York.