“the poems keep getting shorter/the explanations longer”: Leo Fitzpatrick at the National Exemplar
Leo Fitzpatrick: Poem Paintings at the National Exemplar Gallery
January 7 to February 22, 2014
381 Broadway, 2nd Floor, between White and Walker Street
New York, email@example.com
Hours: Thursday to Sunday, 2-7pm
Compared to words, pictures are the more enigmatic, imprecise mode of expression; consequently, words are (as demonstrated here) often employed to describe and organize interpretations for images. Leo Fitzpatrick, however, attempts to conduct the reverse by subtly motivating the act of painting to service words. His fascinating solo show at the National Exemplar Gallery is comprised of a quiet ring of monochromatic text paintings of uniform, modest scale that outline the rim of the gallery’s space. Black capital letters are painted in the most nondescript, precisely medium-strength sans serif font. One corner of the room feels momentarily warped by five standout canvases set against darker and hazier backgrounds, but most titles come as suites of two or three canvases. The installation does not immediately clarify these groupings or suggest an agreed upon starting point to viewing the work.
The thirty-six year old artist first gained attention as a teenage skateboarder in Larry Clark’s Kids (1995). In addition to his paintings he is also known for his ardent word collages made with old paperback novels, found images, and other cultural debris. He has also published several volumes of poetry, mostly pages of restless, probing free verse lines quite similar to text found in these poem paintings: “a collection of sad hopes and futures dying / a destiny fit for a king.” “MY ANGER IS MY HOME (THE BOY WHO COULD MAKE HIMSELF DISAPPEAR) AND I’M HOME ALONE.” Compared to other artists who work with words such as Christopher Wool, Carl Andre or Jamie Shovlin, Fitzpatrick’s collaboration with language is curiously literal and reverent. These canvases are too large to fit household printers, but the increased typeface retains the proportional familiarity and intimacy of 12 point Arial on A4 paper. Each canvas contains a sparse handful of words, displayed in aesthetically reasonable compositions that are not overdesigned. Lines are never robotically centered or justified, and words are only severed after prefixes and never interrupted mid-syllable. The result is a group of effortlessly truthful still-life portraits of poetry in its essential state.
Painting’s accessible, lyrical physicality does not engulf language’s abstract identity; the verses gain the perfect degree of hyper-articulated visibility without having to materialize their contents as reinterpreted, disenchanting illustrations. Sourced from poems and diaries that Fitzpatrick has been keeping since age eight, these paintings awaken distant feelings that are invisible yet intensely palpable. Memories of unresolved poignancy and angst have long been archived as experience, and the paintbrush fully reactivates their sting. The blunt, black brushstrokes come through like deep trenches and dig into plush layers of white and wintry grays, putting to bed buzzing palimpsests of revised dreams and nostalgia.
One of the most mesmerizing moments in the show is a series of three canvases that begins with “NEVER AGAIN” and ends with “AGAIN.” “NEVER AGAIN” is positioned at the top of the left panel and “AGAIN” at the bottom of the right, conversing like two clearly adjacent pieces in a complex puzzle set. The center canvas reads, “I WAS/IN LOVE/WITH YOU/INTILL YOU/LEFT WITH/HIM.” Intentional or not, Fitzpatrick’s misspellings are immensely engrossing. There is something sinister about the word “intill” that makes it stick and linger – perhaps it is due to the unexpected absence of the friendly roundedness of the shape of “U”? After a lengthy gaze, the brigade of vertical strips here will begin to appear dangerously sharp and spear-like. A delicate frenzy of cracks and wrinkles on the finely shattered surrounding surface confirms their weight.