The history of artists addressing the alphabet and the relation of painting to writing is as long as it is varied. The pictographic ab-ex paintings of Adolf Gottleib, the metagraphics of the French Lettrists, the automatic scrawl of Henri Michaux’s inky ideograms, and the scrupulously poised design of Mirtha Dermisache’s “pure signifers” (1) — 1to mention but a few—have, in fact, very little in common. To a greater or lesser extent, though, poetry is in the room with them, as they share with poets a desire to mean beyond words, to see the shape of letters, to feel the self-sufficient gesture of writing.
Rebecca Watson Horn’s paintings are aware of this history, they are part of it, but not beholden to it. In these visceral writing-paintings, the letters of some unknown phrase—almost lost, yet indelibly inscribed—move around, dis-join from their usual partners, engaging stutters and mumblings. They do not scatter, they rearrange, permute; they are not concrete, they are plastic, pliable, fluid. Like the poems of Russian Futurist Aleksei Kruchenykh, written in a language he called “my very own” with words that have no “definite meanings,” (2) Horn’s paintings are a private language, but they remain open to our sensory experience, communicating without definition. They invite us to wander her alphabet and loosen our grasp (3) of our own language. Here we find letters being themselves, perhaps making new words for some as yet unknown purpose. To borrow a phrase from a Russian Futurist manifesto, they are letters as such.
In a way, Horn’s work also calls to mind Kruchenykh’s experiments with moving beyond letters: in his messy hectographic (4) books of the Russian Civil War years, the poet isn’t writing as much as drawing, or scraping at the surface, to take apart the alphabet itself—not in the technical manner of the Bauhaus, but rather guided by an anarchist drive to undo its terrifying order, a tormented need to destroy and reconstruct. (5) Yet Horn’s painting—closer in pallet to Varvara Stepanova’s gouache bookwork Gaust Chaba (1919) than Kruchenykh’s acerbic black ink on newsprint—is not out to destroy. Rather, it is a kind of memory-work through which the artist remembers the gestural beginning of writing.
Just as when we are taught to write in schools, this unlearning of writing (to rediscover that lost connection) requires repetition, requires practice. Rather than fill—as Michaux did—page after page to un-teach herself writing, Horn works at her forgetting on the rough canvas itself, removing by building. Unlike Stepanova, she isn’t drawing poems; unlike Dermisache, she isn’t structuring a space of writing. Rather—staring at the words in her speech, rubbing out the irrelevant vowels, losing her body in the letter’s body—Horn is writing paintings.
Orientation is paramount to effect in the viewer a desire to read: the letters remain upright, even if their knees are wobbly. In the way that Michaux’s quickened movements of the pen yield anthropomorphic figures, here, if the eye lingers, it is met with ghostly human profiles in the “counters,” the open, enclosed spaces of letterforms, naked limbs and torsos emerge like offerings, as if from purifying baths. But nothing is defined, nothing definite. Slowly, one realizes that no one is here, neither a Virgil to narrate for us the suffering of the melting letters, nor the artist herself. Through a process of unlearning, the artist has become speechless, disembodied, in a self-forgetting stupor, leaving us with sigils that are wholly personal, hermetic in a way, and yet universal, open to any reader.
Seeking to escape reason into what he termed "non-understanding," the poet Alexander Vvedensky (of the generation that followed the Russian Futurists) wrote on the verge of losing authority, losing control, and authorship itself. Vvedensky’s lyric persona looks outward rather than inward—a self bordering an unbecoming, another self, or oblivion. Like Vvedensky’s lyric voice, Horn’s painter, wandering in her own words, is simultaneously individual and multi-vocal, coherent yet non-linear, shimmering in a language that has broken. Vvedensky’s poem Rug/Hydrangea, is a work of process—composition, erasure, correction, repetition. It is porous to a circular (or circulating) repetition—that is built on forgetting: the desire to forget oneself is predicated on the forgetting of desire. Words become the objects they point to, the objects become the words, and so on, again. Like language in Vvedensky’s poems, Horn’s “words” become strange, object-like, unknowable.
1 Patrick Durgin on Mirtha Dermisache: “What you perceive to be the raw materials of writing batched into columns and other ‘documental structures’ reveals itself to be illustrative, a stupefying proliferation of pure signifiers. The raw materials of illustration are used as exposition, but what is exposed is rather a place for linguistic reference. Nothing (else) is referred to by it. Her writing is illocutionary: it does the deed.” (Jacket 2, September 8, 2014: http://jacket2.org/commentary/witness-mirtha-dermisache).
2 The Russian Futurists referred to these “sound poems” as zaum (beyond-sense), and they were translated to the page by artists like Mikhail Larianov, Natalia Goncharova, Varvara Stepanova, Kazimir Malevich, and Olga Rozanova. All these artists also tried their hands at zaum poetry and alphabetic painting of one sort or another. Rozanova’s collaborations with poet Aleksei Kruchenykh tore apart the accepted divisions of labor dividing artist and poet, so that it’s impossible to say who did what in their books.
3 A word I borrow purposefully from Henri Michaux’s poem-essay exploration of drawing, Saisir (1979), by way of Richard Sieburth’s translation in Stroke by Stroke (Archipelago, 2006). Michaux’s Grasp interrogates, among other things, the violent and acquisitive nature of our desire to see and understand suggested by the word “grasp” itself.
4 Hectography as defined by Wikipedia: “The hectograph, gelatin duplicator, or jellygraph is a printing process that involves transfer of an original, prepared with special inks, to a pan of gelatin or a gelatin pad pulled tight on a metal frame.”5 A few decades later, after the Second World War, the Lettrist poet Gabriel Pomerand wrote of his desire “to give each [word] a different subterranean meaning, but also to break its jaw and thus transform the face it apparently intends to possess forever.”