"Alice Leora Briggs: The Room"
The printmaker disregards clean narrative in her masterly woodcuts based on poetry by Mark Strand
Reviewed by Seth Orion Schwaiger, Fri., Sept. 4, 2015
"You don't read poetry for the kind of truth that passes for truth in the workaday world," said the late Poet Laureate Mark Strand, in a Paris Review interview with Wallace Shawn. "You don't read a poem to find out how you get to 24th Street." Those words ring doubly true when viewing a recently published artist suite of 12 wood relief and chine collé prints by Alice Leora Briggs, each corresponding to a single line of Strand's poem "The Room." These works on display at Flatbed Press are printer's prints, to be sure, flexing the strengths and long narrative/illustrative tradition of the woodcut, but their vividness and textural intensity draw in the uninitiated with an equal pull. Neither Strand's poem nor Briggs' prints depict a clean-cut, discernible environment or storyline; instead, they present thick, tendrilly darknesses – some loose, phantasmagoric worlds made more of atmosphere and emotion than physics and facts, yet still hauntingly linked to the one we occupy.
A bearded man in shadow with cocked head looks sidelong as though listening intently to the parrot in his hand perched in profile. Behind them, archers from both sides fill a two-sunned sky with arrows. The image ranges from neutral to dark gray, the foreground achieving such through a mess of cross-hatching and the background employing a more traditional manuscript-like horizontal line technique. The image is framed by a black field in the bottom of which reads the 10th line of "The Room": "the green field where cows burn like newsprint."
Far from using the poem as a crutch, as can easily happen in works derived from others, each of Briggs' images stand easily on their own. Paired with Strand's words, however, the works form new meanings/confusions, leaving the viewer with a multiverse of tangled connections. The woodcuts are not simple depictions of the text; they do not illustrate the poem. Instead they act as a second but parallel sequence. The works influence the reader's perception of the text as much as the text influences the viewer's perception of the images and so form a perplexing trine when applied to our own reality. Experiencing the works together, one feels much like the characters in the poem or the images: lost, searching, with just enough information to try and make sense of it all, but without enough to ever succeed in doing so. That might sound like a dismal place, and maybe it is, but it's one that ends up being a hell of a lot more interesting than the seat of pure understanding and reason. It's a very real place, but one impossible to describe outside of the realms of art and poetry.
"Alice Leora Briggs: The Room"The Working State Gallery at Flatbed Press, 2830 E. MLK
Through Oct. 21