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Weekly update — art and poetry at the ICA


From the better late than never department, here’s my piece in this week’s Weekly, accompanied by a few photos I grabbed from the ICA‘s website. Here’s Libby’s post on “Springtide” for more on the show.

“Spring” It On
An emotional show at the ICA melds visual art and poetry.

The all-star group exhibit “Springtide” at the Institute of Contemporary Art is dark and taciturn. The show’s artists-Louise Bourgeois, Troy Brauntuch, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Patty Chang and Erick Swenson-deliver messages on the edge of despair with depictions of animals and humans in peril, and of earthly beings reduced to relics of morbid curiosity.
(top image, Louise Bourgeois, Page from “Ode â l’Oubli (Ode to Forgetfulness)” (detail), 2004, Hand-sewn and constructed cloth with lithography and digital printing, 10 3/4 x 13 1/4″ bound book, Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery)

“Springtide” is a gush of emotion comparable to that of a teen discovering Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain. After viewing this death-fascinated exhibit, a viewer needs the reassurance of a strong cup of coffee and a glimpse of young lovers hand in hand.

The ICA’s curating staff organized the show jointly, and the committee looked at more than 80 artists’ works before selecting this particular group. In a nice stroke of ancillary programming, the museum also commissioned five poets to each write a response to a work in the show. The resulting poems-by Tom Devaney, Nick Flynn, Alan Gilbert, Sharon Mesmer and Susan Stewart-are lively, elegant and readable.

Here the poetry, which viewers take home on free posters from the show, gets the last word. The vernacular voices of the poets lift the chill experience of the exhibition and bring it into the realm of casual dialogue. The subject matter becomes accessible instead of forbidding.
I don’t mean to convey a battle between art and poetry where poetry wins. In the way that Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations weave themselves into the fabric of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the poems here interlock with the art. They’re the storytellers around the campfire that weave a spell of words to go with the hallucinations in the flames.

(image, Springtide installation. photo by Aaron Igler. Right background, Patty Chang, “Losing Ground,” 2001, video projection; left background, Berlinde De Bruychere, Les Deux, 2001, Polyester, iron, skin of horses, 125 x 134 x 110 inches; foreground, Erick Swenson, “Untitled,” 2004. Polyurethane resin, acrylic paint, MDF, polystyrene, 276 x 174 x 23.5 inches)

Tom Devaney’s “The Car, a Window, and World War II” is the poem that differs most radically from its art source, Troy Brauntuch’s black-on-black drawing Untitled (Fur #2). Devaney’s poem voices an anger and confusion not implied by Brauntuch’s art. The poem is tetchy and argumentative, while Brauntuch’s drawing of a woman’s full-length fur coat is dreamy and speculative.

The two come together in a kind of surreal theatricality that evokes loss, love and heartbreak. As with the other poems, Devaney’s sheds light on the art and provides a possible (though not the only) way of viewing it.

A friend invited me to a poetry reading at my neighborhood library recently. We went not knowing what to expect and found that more than 50 people turned up on the rainy Monday night, and most of them were poets themselves. Sixteen people read poems at the open mike, and all but one or two were quite good.

I’ve been wishing for art to take back its place in people’s hearts after years of self-imposed exile in the chill lands of abstraction, conceptualism and minimalism. But there’s already an art form that’s participatory and speaks to people-and never went away.

Poetry requires only a pencil and paper and the will to communicate. With poetry slams and neighborhood poetry groups everywhere, it seems verse is being written by everyone and appreciated widely these days.

Perhaps poetry will lead people back to art. It certainly can help, as it does with this exhibit. The “Springtide” poets will read at the ICA tonight at 7 p.m. [Ed. note: the poets read last night, Wed. July 13.]

Through July 31. Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St. 215.898.5911.

The poems

ICA has the five poems online here.

Here’s an excerpt from one,
“The Car, a Window, and World War II” by tom devaney
It’s the last stanza.

Ask yourself this question:
Does silence have to mean a lack of sound?
I hate the lack of sound myself, though crave the silence.
Yesterday, three people were shot at a check-point.
The difference between a moment of silence
and a decade of silence.
A lone piano plays into our daily commute.
Gravel, pretzel bits, a penny on the floor. VACUUM:
Fifty Cents.
Sonic Youth behind another pane of glass, glazed.
They didn’t invent flesh as material, only the name:
“Adaptation Studies.”
The light through the painted window
becomes part of the notes on the page: pink and perfect
in the here and now of the there and then.
Trace the tire marks, the fuel leak on the carpet,
call them “relics.”
She was emphatic: “I don’t read the quotes, I skip them.”
A statement which clearly gave her a lot of satisfaction.
This was years ago, hence the spaces, hence the space.

(image is Troy Brauntuch, Untitled (Emily’s coat on black table), 2005, Conte on cotton, 40 x 50 inches.)

It’s not just gas prices. Beginning Aug. 1, entrance fees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art ( will go up. The new rate for adult admission to the PMA will be $12 (up from $10). Student admission goes to $8, and senior admission increases to $9 (both are now $7). The Sunday pay-as-you-wish policy continues, as does free admission for children 12 and under. Members still get in free, and there’s no charge for those who wish only to shop in the gift shop or eat in the restaurant or cafeteria. >> You thought painting and photography were at odds? Think again. The Photographic Society of Philadelphia, the oldest photography club in the U.S., has joined with the Plein Air Artists for a joint exhibition of photography and painting at the Plastic Club (247 S. Camac St. 215.545.9324) through Aug. 7. Work is on view Wednesday evenings from 5 to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m. Want to paint outside with the Plein Air Artists? It’s free to join. Call 215.977.8408. (R.F.)