Sue Tompkins

The book I read was in your eyes

Anne Hamilton at Elizabeth Leach, Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen at PDX Contemporary Art

When I first thought to write this essay for ArtsWatch, the artists for the 2014 Whitney Biennial had not yet been announced. I mention this because now I cannot consider the Portland exhibits I wish to write about without contemplating the tenor of the Whitney curators’ choices for the upcoming Biennial. Much of the art chosen is by artists who also write about art, or artists who often use text in their work, or artists who only use text in their work, and to fill out this line of thought, publishers of texts. (See the breakdown here.)

Not that I want to make claims for being prescient or any such thing, but the art that caught my eye in Portland the last two months also had much to do with writing and reading. Never mind that I am often creatively geared this way and that my own predisposition may guide me toward this type of work—I have seen a lot lately. In the last year or so I have written essays about artists who use text as a central focus of their work: Lisa Radon’s sublime ἐπί ἡμέρα (epi hemera) and Sue Tompkins’ typewritten works at Portland Museum of Modern Art and part of this year’s TBA Festival.

Now, Elizabeth Leach has an exhibit by Ann Hamilton that runs for ten weeks through January 11, plus Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen were around the corner at PDX Contemporary Art last month. Then there is an ongoing curatorial thrust of Yale Union. While I hesitate to call it a trend, I cannot brush it off as a coincidence. Something is afoot.

Whether text (and I mean this in the broadest possible sense) is finally getting its due as the inspiration for and an element of a fair amount of art we see these days, or that the worlds of the poet, philosopher, curator, critic and artist have irrevocably melded into a Leviathan of practice, it nevertheless has me thinking.

Does building a richer inner life, namely by reading, run the danger of becoming a form of hermeticism, thereby leaving something or someone behind?


TBA:13: She got a beat

Sue Tompkins quietly lays one down for love and TBA

In the audio piece by Sue Tompkins at the Portland Museum of Modern Art, she muses, “What is this I’m feeling?” repeating the question multiple times as she explores the lyrical qualities of this and many other phrases and sounds. The piece is echoed to some degree by the sheets of paper mounted on two walls of this tiny, basement space.

I think it’s love.

Not that I loved the work; I think the work is about love, both as subject matter and object making.

The wall pieces are largely an experimentation in concrete poetry, and as such leave themselves open to not only literal but structural interpretations. We can approach the text pieces as visual art that incorporates poetry or straight text, and if we do so, it is perhaps understandable how one tries to tie the words and more visual aspect together. Some of these pieces are more straightforward than others, which makes that task easier. There is one I will call “Deep” (I did not see any materials listing titles accompanying the exhibition), an obvious choice in that this is the only word on the page and is typed and then repeated in the center of the page from near the top of the page downwards until the platen and keys cannot align for an impression to be made. It is meant to demonstrate depth.

Other pieces are considerably less obvious, yet some correlation, association or system can be hazarded between the words and the image that has been made by typing as well. For instance, where ‘air” is mentioned, the typed grid of vertical lines lie above the text. A wall is referenced in another and one is built with the typing of specific keys.


But there has to be more; otherwise Tompkins’ work would be run-of-the-mill, beginner stuff. Concrete poetry aspires to be rolled around in the mind as much as read or seen as two-dimensional. While it may appear odd to a viewer used to more conventional poetic forms, concrete poetry often invites playfulness from the viewer.

If one takes a cue from the audio piece, these sheets of paper can be read as rhythmic. The marks made by the typing that are not words offer a sort of time signature for added sounds: the word “asterisk” repeated ad nauseam, single letter sounds such as “el, el, el…” or if preferred, a period of silence, the length of which is dependent on how long one’s eye scans the page.

I am drawn by another structure, one perhaps suggested by the artist with the fifth page (if one reads these pieces left to right), for it breaks with the prior pieces that combine words with images, this one solely relying on an arrangement of words.

Love affair


Seeing there is a repetition of words on this page and also noticing the same from page to page, I found myself wanting to reconfigure the text from all of the pages into a list, or of you will, one longer poem (foregoing Tompkins’ all caps formatting):

Shake yourhips in the village.
Letherin through the grill.
Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fre! Fere Free!
Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep, Deep
A Complete Love Affair.
You know, I love
the Earth. You cant stop
it. I cant stop it.
Carry on Earthling.
Carry on living init.
Earth keep on getting
up keep on getting up
keepon gettin up
Im at your door here.
Wet thru, by town.
Wet thru mines town.
Wet thru.
Im at your door.
Move the dirt.
Keep on getting up.
Youre in the larger world.
Yourenota corporation
Like lovebirds do.
Groups form.
Meet the wall.
Pure love.
Put confetti
in it
Confetti painting
I love the air.
You know like air does.
Through the air like that.
Through the grille.
Through it.


“What is this I’m feeling?” I don’t know about you, but the lyricism that lay hidden in the individual sheets and is now readily visible makes me think I may even be able to dance to it.

Not really much of a surprise. Tompkins, or so goes the chatter on the intertubes, is perhaps best known for being the voice in front of Life without Buildings , a “post-punk” Glasgow art school band (their name a nod to a song by David Sylvian’s early group, Japan) formed in 1999 and disbanded in 2002. To whit:

All that is missing is the instrumentals. The guitar riffs have been replaced with manual typewriter key strokes thereby making these minimal constructions less than far-fetched, and perhaps as formally close to a reconstitution —a concretization— as one can come to her earlier days as a performer. The visuals replace dead air.

To better appreciate this exhibit, it doesn’t hurt to be familiar with No Wave performance from the East Coast that hit its high point in the late 70s and early 80s. One would also do well to become better acquainted with slightly earlier movements such as the Last Poets or the Post-beat, Poetry Out Loud. And long before any of the above movements, without music but still with a strong lyrical element, we must acknowledge Gertrude Stein, plus the dadaists who explored sound poetry and text-based art concurrently with Stein. And before them, Mallarmé.

Even so, concrete poetry and visual poetry, or for that matter any of the word-based genres, remain somewhat on the periphery compared to other visual art forms. Still, there seems to be an increasing number of practitioners in this word-art arena (several Portland artists immediately come to mind). Tompkins comes to concrete poetry with a style that is not too far afield from her music days, which may work to her advantage. For one, she has a built-in fan base. Plus, largely because of the trails blazed by many and varied progenitors, her concrete poetry and spoken word—like her music—are far enough away from pop, but not so far as to be problematic.

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