Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Lichen, The Giants

Brandon Downing
Lake Antiquity
(Fence, 2009)

A man and a horse jump over a fence of wooden railings. The man is dressed for a fox hunt. His coat is blood red, its tail extending out in a sharp triangle illustrating speed and force of intent.

The man has a little mustache which gives him the look of crisp, masculine deportment. The horse is muscular and brown. Its forelegs curve graciously downward. Its mane and tail are braided and its bridled head shows no emotion.

This depiction of a fox hunt is not a particularly good painting. It seems to be a magazine illustration, perhaps from a children’s storybook, or perhaps an issue of Horse And Hound.

Above the horse and rider, imposed over a background of soft hazy clouds, are three narrow blocks of paper, no doubt clipped from a magazine, presenting a discrete series of phrases: “one who could set down, Dying for Love,” “character of the divers ages of Love,” and, a little further down, “the Age of violent attractions of Love.” At the bottom of the page is a single block of paper with two lines of text: “Forward and back Love’s electric messenger rushed/ from heart to heart, knocking at each.”

There is no logical connection between these fragments of text and the picture. They may have been clipped from the same magazine, or clipped from something entirely different. The choice and arrangement of these texts on the page have a blithe, tenuous, arbitrary relation with the horse and rider, at once suggesting and evading a semantic linkage. Not present, but vividly imagined, provoked, insinuated, aroused, are the reveries of the reader, whoever that may be, and however inclined and receptive that person may be to zones of imaginary drama.

The page on which this collage appears is from Brandon Downing’s enormous Lake Antiquity. A little smaller than your standard coffee table book, Lake Antiquity is as full of reverie and discovery as the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest. The title does tend to suggest something along the lines of a wilderness area, though one leaning decidedly toward the arcane than the Arcadian. The cover illustration, for instance, shows a little red-capped dwarf looking out at a series of geysers in a 19th century engraving. This is clearly not Yellowstone, nor Iceland, but a geography of the imagination.

Lake Antiquity is a very close cousin to Max Ernst’s collage-novel La femme 100 têtes (loosely translated as “The Woman With One Hundred Heads,” or “Hundred Headed Woman”), but with some salient differences. Where Ernst relied exclusively on 19th century engravings, Downing has included a large variety of graphic media: cartoons, advertisements, posters, home interior magazines, textbook illustrations, children’s drawings, banknotes, circulars, cookbook recipes, stock certificates and single blocks of colored paper used as background for the clipped texts.

What I like best about this book, is that it is a book. It has heft. It has a pleasant smell. Its texture feels smooth in my hands. I can take it to the couch and lay down and peruse it without the annoyance of pop up ads and a page that is slow to scroll down on my computer screen.

I also very much like its hallucinatory gusto. The worlds represented on its glossy pages are sirens of visual seduction, calling you to enter their domain and spend some time noting their flora and fauna, expand the bounds of your imagination, drift, explore, meander. The drama on the page is taking place in the theatre of your mind. It is a universe of illusions and shadows. Waterfalls and raging elephants.

On pages 92 and 93 are juxtaposed two similar scenes. To the left, a small boat of people, sitting in neat rows, their backs to the viewer, travel on a misty stream. They are surrounded by luxurious green foliage, ferns and tall trees whose roots are partially exposed and resemble the legs of leviathans. There is something subtly discordant about the scene, something unidentifiable that gives it an hallucinatory aspect. At the top and bottom are two thick black margins whose impenetrable bands enclose and frame the scene. It is a deeply absorbing scene. One can feel the thickness of the humidity and smell the mingled odor of decay and growth. One feels like shouting, “hey, where are you going?”

To the right, is a more obviously assembled, but no less mysterious, jungle scene. What appears at first glance to be a 19th century engraving is, in fact, a seamless combination of elements derived from other engravings done in a similar style. A forest of cycads and tall, deciduous trees crowd a space of eerie, primeval beauty. A small amount of sunlight diffuses through the confusion of tree trunks, branches, and leaves. It is a testament to the skill of the engraver that the effect of this diffusion is so natural, so actual. Two men in 19th century hunting costume occupy the far right corner amid a tangle of large ferns. One of them stands, his rifle pointing downward. The other strides forward, toting his rifle on his shoulder. In the lower center, a woman, dressed in what appears to be Tibetan costume, sits on a mass of foamy white material, holding a baby. A man to the immediate left, dressed as a monk with large floppy sleeves, walks out of the forest, his arms upraised, as if in alarm.

These elements alone evoke strange doings and portents. But the strangest feature of this scene looms above the seated woman to the immediate right: the colossal peg box and scroll of a stringed instrument, cello or bass viola, its tuning pegs protruding like arms, rises from the ground like a strange religious totem or idol. The head of a lion, a baleful expression on its face, is mounted at the very top. In the far lower right, below the two hunters, is the caption: “Two Storms.” Does this refer to the two hunters, or the woman and the monk? Does it suggest the conflicts between the fictive and the real? Is it meant to suggest Bergson’s dualistic notion of clash and conflict between life and matter? The enigma is as fertile as the forest in which it resides.

Lake Antiquity is full of scenes like this. Flipping its pages is like wandering the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. It just seems endless.

The single blocks of color one finds on a few pages in this collection provides an arena where one can concentrate on the text alone. On page 124 are two blocks of color, one white, one black, of identical size paired on a light green background. Upon each are presented a poem consisting of very short lines, phrases from magazine clippings assembled in patterns emphasizing a great deal of space between each cluster of words. “aërial,” begins the first, “the small grey particles/ they meet on a field,/ The moonlight lays a white hand on it/ O God!” This cluster is followed by a small cluster further down; “roarings of/ little ones/ the lichen/ the giants/. Still further down (much further down), is the phrase “’At his hotel.’” The last cluster begins, “sight of the room/ radiant/ frenzies/ foully/ lucent/ give it language.”

The poem to the right, on the black background, is constructed in a similar fashion. “of tourists,” it begins, “in morning darkness/ I know/ they can freeze/ [space] “I speak of myself,/ I heard of you/ in your breast/ tripping down/ in supreme toilette [very very large space] ‘Gradations appear to be unknown to you,’/ and the meshes/ or one of the gaunt hotels/ I/ just finished.”

The two poems evoke a sense of crisis. The highly disjunctive character implicit in their construction pierces the surrounding space with a poignant materiality. Oblivion haunts them. Threatens to engulf them. Their worlds are fragmentary. Volatile. Giddy. Disconnected. One suspects that the source text from which these clippings have been taken are more coherent, but far less evocative. The mind instinctively creates narratives and meaning where at best there are only clues. This is what makes collage so enchanting: we are at liberty to concentrate on a scene and enlarge it indefinitely. Hence, that marvelous phrase: “the lichen, the giants.” Pure perception occurs when we are placed outside of ourselves. How does that happen? When linearity is minced into rattles and escalators. When all relatedness has its foundation in the relatedness of unfettered, living immediacies of becoming. Collage awakens the potentialities of intuition, breeds fumaroles and fissures, jets gushing out unceasingly, of which each, falling back, is a world.

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