Body (1), after Michael Joyce’s “this,” 2010, oil on canvas, 60″ x 60.” Private collection.
What are you currently working on? [April 2010]
Alexandra Grant: A new series of work called “bodies.” The initial idea came from the last show I did with [Honor Fraser] gallery – there was a painting titled the Fifth Portal (touch) – a representation of the sense of touch but really mapping of the human body. I was struck by the idea of representing the body as a series of ideas and perceptions, of language and sensory experiences.
These continue to be language-based paintings?
AG: The “body” of work began with an exchange with my long-term collaborator Michael Joyce – for the purposes of this series he wrote me a cycle of poems in a form called “haiga” which describe sensations and experiences related to the physical: sensuality and sexuality, romantic love, creation myths are some of the themes. I used the poems as starting points for the paintings – riffing and responding and repeating the themes in them.
Can you talk about the visual aspect of this work? In what ways have you evolved your “language”?
AG: For the body series I decided that the material equal to the subject matter was oil paint on canvas or linen – that the material needed to have physical presence, to ooze, to accrete in a different way than the material I had been using for many years, acrylic on paper. The oil has changed the work in the way it gains density, in the brightness of the color. In order to suggest the body, the works are all symmetrical, the words and forms reflected along a central mirror-line. As a result they could be the organs and symmetry of the body, and even the brain itself. In every work I use a non-language symbol and in this series I chose the arch, which can be ceremonial, or become a rainbow, legs, a sliver of moon. The images are built-up layers of these words and arches, interconnected.
You’ve always made work that is highly “visual” – concerned with mark-making and color and composition as much as it is “conceptual” or intellectual. Can you describe how that works here?
AG: My work has been an exploration of how language operates in an image. In these particular paintings, I’ve been interested in thinking through how a woman painter represents the body, especially in terms of language. In this case Michael is my muse, a male muse. But the paintings are also a map of the exchange with him, with his texts. On the one hand, they are intimate maps of a specific dialogue and conversation. But on the other, like any “portrait” of a person, they are much more than the specifics of the exchange. The works become about a woman artist representing the body on her own terms – about femininity and desire, of the gendered politics of representing the body. I keep thinking of Mary Kelly, who I heard speak at UCLA recently about “Post-Partum” document. Kelly wanted to make work within the ven diagrams of Artist, Woman, Parent, and used a conceptual vocabulary to map this particular experience (a vocabulary influenced by Hans Haacke). Likewise the body paintings are very much a complex and nuanced tracing of both subject and form. The bodies are very much grounded in a history of painting – looking at text as image, thinking deeply through the issues of material and the craft of painting, the physicality of the work, making decisions about color (vivacious) and composition (symmetry among other choices). At the same time, they are an intellectual analysis of the function of language, in this case poetic texts, to suggest imagery and a certain kind of process.
Body 2, after Michael Joyce’s “smoke,” 2010, oil on linen, 80″ x 60.” Private collection.
The Body Series
The paintings in the body series are based on a haiku cycle written by Michael Joyce:
Lost Hills Hokku
Renga of seventeen hokku with haibun
this [body 1]
spring is more than this
whose body sits by the gate
beyond this stllness
Just above Las Virgenes the chapparel commences, black sage, bush monkey, lemonade berry, toyon and silk-tassel bush blending to a single scent sometimes described as earthy, txapar the Basque word for the center, where dances the lover before you, before all this was what this has become
smoke [body 2]
smoke both what it is
and what it is no longer
joke of aftermath
cousin to la cendre, twin to the mirror, the cheap pun of the holocaust an account, a cost, lost to us, a yelping dog left chained to a stake beside the smouldering house on Calabasas, its odonym from the Chumash for gourd, calahoosa, the cup of the world, belly of Hutash, whose island, Limuw, her consort, warmed with his tongue of fire until the place grew so thronged it tipped like a currach into the water, song of our our dolphins brothers swarming neath Rainbow Bridge, the DJ playing Garth Brooks on the Island Packers ferry, “Like a bird upon the wind/These waters are my sky,” and what we are left with is what?
and [body 3]
the perfect counter-
part of itself and not what
it links, viz. blue moon
the second time in any month an excess, by mensuration, a melee, the sensual and sensuous (AHD) “are frequently used interchangeably to mean ‘gratifying the senses,’ esp. in a sexual sense. Strictly speaking, this goes against a traditional distinction,” by definition or distinction what links us is not what we are or what we lack, “is” is the cupola, this whispering, tenderness of being “entre guillemets” as if “under covers,” of darkness for instance or the lover’s embrace or sunk beneath the endlessness of the sea before us, and
the hills [body 4 and 5]
cherry blossom pale
breast in the dark of the night
above where we sit
white hillock cette fesse
how many languages can
you laugh in, gonzesse
the shoulders of the world, quand même, turn cold to us when the embers settle, dawn and dusk each grin comme le sourire d’une diablesse, or recall how the bright lights shone below the scene seen from the deck at the Hammer curator’s house that time after we waited in the car for the party to start among these holy hills, here where French is thought la langue of temptresses, from Simone Simon to Simone Signoret, mais vraiment, in truth, les françaises were among the earliest settlers of the pueblo, the aptly named Jean Louis Vignes arriving from Bordeaux in 1832 for instance, until by the turn of the century, l’aube de lumière des étoiles si vous voulait, ”stars in every city/ In every house and on every street,” (The Kinks), back then Chinese and French businesses filled the eastern sides of the plaza, le soleil– that is, in Mandarin ri become, today, tai yang, pouring down upon them at days’ end, Sky Snake wreathing the Chumash hills above like a punker’s studded belt along Melrose, all these facts a bore to the whore of history where she lays, rump plump as hills, and watches the fireworks, the days sparking against the spinning sharpening stone
at dusk [body 6 and 7]
of the woodpecker gives way
to the nightingale
Shunsei’s spring star is rising
above the lagoon
Along the the Satwiwa Loop trail toward Boney mountain the tall grass whispering as the wind rushes inland at twilight then up long the sycamore canyon where the waterfall once more sings the wakaba kana, leaf song, long ago written down in the old man’s florigelium. Here the night wants to be born no less than the morning.
the [body 8]
thuds in certainty
sun pouring down upon one
in a rhyme for sea
He is who we mean when we talk about her, she whom he calls upon so intractably that no one can bear how he sounds, not even that one whose face mirrors his, each side precisely a copy as if he were a moth and she a candle, vesica piscis of its flame riven like an almond, its symmetry that of a cloven apple, seeds in their husk, mouth agape. This parable is one of absence but does not make a heart more fond, or her Eve. “Ventureño, like its sister languages, is a polysynthetic language, having larger words composed of a number of morphemes.” Verb at it its heart with utterances often composed only of a verb with clitics (I’m, you’re, she’s, for instance, they’ve or they’ll, we’ll if you like) pushed, propulsed should be a verb thinks she’s one now with him.
symmetry [body 9, 10 and 11]
snow cherry blossom
your kiss clings upon my cheek
finger seals your lips
long after the spring
his echo haunts the valley
fawn running before
first the sun grows then
the shadow on the bluffs of
This is a long story in three parts: the thing that rhymes with another, that other, and the rhyme itself. Let’s call the first thing woman or chalk and the other tar or man, he and she in black and white. The third will be the shore that rings between them or the slow half-spiral of the red-tailed hawk above the rookery.
They are walking hand in hand but they do not talk because the ocean today is raucous, the wind rising up from the Channel Islands (O Hutash is this you again?) and not stopping until it has cleared the peaks of the Santa Ynez. Somewhere near here is where Lizard tricked that trickster Sky Coyote; later each of you can read this story in the lover’s hand.
He thinks he has told the stories out of order but she only smiles. With that the surface of the ocean calms and great brown gods rise above the foam, a procession of them riding in upon her, wave on wave of laughing angels lapsing and then jumping off before the stipa and the sage scrub. He knows he should be jealous of what she is able to summon in men but erstwhile betimes she’s made him fly as well and thus really he can have no complaint. Even so he falls asleep watching the dim embers from the fire on the beach and hearing her laughter as she tumbles with her consorts beyond the ring of light.
of [body 12]
of itself, hanashoubu,
iris, drills skyward
What part of speech this is we know no more, pre-positional exactly, pied troisieme the climber’s term as well, generative: of or relating to reproduction, of thee I sing, love or the sleeve of the coat, “the son of a friend | the government of India | a photograph of the bride | a former colleague of John’s,” the whole entry a mad catalogue of possible relations, “the city of Prague | the idea of a just society | the set of all genes,” a violation of copyright, I touch along the length of you the caress drawing a simulacrum in the air, Brossard’s Baroque d’aube exactly, or as she writes in her journal intime, “à s’interroger sur cette autre que je pourrais être si je pensais en anglais, en italien ou en toute autre langue.,” to ask myself what I woud be if I thought in another tongue, say English or Italian.
thigh [body 13]
we have come to this
hollow where the mist lingers
along the narrows
Miocene flank lambent and postcoital before them, sedimentary loll of her, his sinewed thrust now lapsed, lovers intertwined, swan curve of their arms along the basin where the ocean gently rocks before them as if a baby’s joujou, a bright plaything only half in focus wherein the twin visage appears as worn as a walrus Chumash cameo, Pacific exactly, caresses like whispers and the seagrass swaying in the green depth beneath the still surface of the bay that from time to time the breeze ticks in a phosphorescent dapple.
ivory [body 14, 15 and 16]
an autumn wind multiplies
moon’s ivory face
trivalve music of
a conch trumpet heralding
pale queen of winter
and then left with what?
this carbonaceous shore’s
salt bleached murmur
These three sisters once fashioned a whole people from bone, starting as a lark they created a race of ghostly dancers in diaphanous silk gowns, milkweed princesses and the like, but tiring quickly of them looked instead for something with more muscled substance, a calculus for those things that cling among the seawrack in the way the red abalone resists becoming dislodged, holding on until the diver’s lungs scream and he must surface, still dreaming of the great pearl he dreamed to glimpse within the pulsing creature.
What else can be hidden in echo or rumor, the treble goddess perhaps: maiden, matron, crone, the low note raising in consecutive intervals of a third, known as a gymel, which despite what might seem its familial resemblance is a false twin to gyno and its derivatives, gynophore for instance, the stalk of a pistil, ladyflower’s phallus.
A word of such substance could easily, one supposes, hold itself erect, susurration lifting from a tidal cave so loudly that the wayward sailor finds himself drowning ere he comes to know the sound he finds himself involved in as the lorelei’s faux music. Still they say she shows herself to him in the moment he takes the last draught in into his lungs, the whole sea become a blue breath, chalcedony light upon the surface before it forever dims.
moon [body 17]
twin pearls between moans
of successive consonants
moon’s seasons her own
It is impossible to be alone here no matter what you think, the sea pressing against the shore, the shore pushing back again, dark upon the hills, their lavender shadows rising skyward where a drift of sweet pinyon smoke outlines the vagrant breeze, and you a beam of light within this constant traffic, shore to mountain, home again.