By Michael Leonard
Published August 27, 2012 10:21 AM PST
Sonoma Valley, California
The irrepressible 93 year-old poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti is currently exhibiting his paintings, drawings, and prints from both past (earliest 1958) and present at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art through September 23rd. Approximately 60 of Ferlinghetti’s art works don the walls of this small, attractive museum in the heart of California’s lush and beautiful wine country.
The exhibition title, Cross-Pollination, refers to the interaction of abstract (words) and concrete (visual) symbols that account for the primary meanings of all the works on display. Curator Diane Roby has chosen pieces that were inspired, either directly or indirectly, by the writings of literary giants such as Ezra Pound, Berthold Brecht, Dante, T.S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Joyce, and Alan Ginsberg as well as modern masters of the visual arts such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Edvard Munch. Ferlinghetti’s painting Let Us Go Then, You and I (2009) includes these same words painted directly on the canvas which are derived from a poem written by T.S. Eliot. His large canvas Moloch (2002) is not only inspired by Alan Ginzburg’s poem Howl (1955) but also by Munch’s famous lithograph (and painting) The Scream (1893, 1910).
For years, Ferlinghetti, who is largely a self-taught painter, has consistently practiced a style that has drawn both praise for its simple directness and criticism for its lack of technical sophistication and aesthetic appeal. These seemingly contradictory stylistic forces are evident in the art works displayed in this exhibition. The whole of Ferlinghetti’s work appears to be made in a quick, spontaneous, child-like manner without over-editing using loose, energetic brush strokes and raw, dissonant colors. This approach to art-making is characteristic of Expressionism, a style of modern painting that arose in the 19th Century with the likes of Goya, Van Gogh, and Gauguin and carried over into the 2nd half of the 20th Century (Abstract Expressionism), which places primary emphasis on the expression of the artists’ emotional responses to nature.
Although his paintings and drawings appear to be “expressionistic” in the traditional sense, their main emphasis is not so much on the expression of emotions as upon the evocation of ideas; and it is the visual symbols, not the loose brushwork or dissonant colors, that are the main instruments for promulgating those ideas. Rather than engaging in today’s all-to-common retreats from humanism into over-wrought formalist exercises or narcissistic musings on artistic “concepts,” Ferlinghetti, to his credit, has chosen nature as his subject focusing on complex issues related to the human condition such s love, hate war, death, creativity, and the mystery of man’s spiritual existence. He is not, however, a modern tragedian pouring out his feelings in the sense of the poet Arthur Rimbaud or the painter Francis Bacon. His work seems more related to Dante and his Divine Comedy in that Ferlinghetti seems inclined to hover outside the fray while recording his views, sometimes with humor, on the whole of human existence in all its various shades of seriousness and absurdity.
The signature painting in this exhibit (which is printed on the exhibition poster) is Boat People (2006), a large canvas about 4’ x 7.’ The piece includes the profile of a garish green-colored boat with a single mast (no sail) in which half dozen figures sit arranged in a row left to right. These passengers are minimally drawn with simple black or gray brushstrokes. One of these figures stares out at the viewer wearing a red gag over its mouth while another, also facing towards the viewer, has a white blindfold placed over its eyes. The surrounding sky is shrouded in a gray fog. The boat plows through waters, also gray, whose ripples are populated with a myriad of dream-like, floating figures with eyes closed all moving in the same direction as the boat.
So what does this painting mean? Who are these people? What do they represent? One of the strengths of the painting (and some others in the exhibition) is that it raises such questions and demands answers from the viewer that may not always be “cut-and-dry” clear. When we think of “boat people,” we generally think of impoverished refugees attempting an escape to more friendly shores; but are these particular boat people (Haitians, Cubans, etc.) or do they represent humanity itself in its timeless search for freedom? While the boat itself may symbolize a vehicle for achieving freedom from oppressive political forces, the gag and the blindfold seem to serve as reminders of our ongoing desire for freedom of expression. Both these possibilities are overriding themes that permeate Ferlinghetti’s oeuvre.
What about the garish, acid green color of the boat that stands out like a sore thumb from the painting’s gray, maudlin background? Ferlinghetti’s palette in general is not a warm, sunny one. Could this electric green color have symbolic meaning referring to ecological concerns? After all, the boat plows through a bleak environment which may serve as a symbol of the earth’s growing ecological blight.
Along with written words usually painted in a clunky style, images of boats, water, and birds are recurrent symbols that appear in many of the paintings and drawing seen in this exhibition. Such figures seem to refer to the elemental forces of nature – of life and death itself. Ferlinghetti’s interest in boats and water may in part be inspired by his experience as the skipper of a U.S. Navy sub chaser during World War II. Birds appear in such paintings as The Birds (1958) and The Golden Bird of Memory Attending Proust on his Deathbed (2008) as spiritual messengers or omens.
Besides using many literary references as inspirations for his work, Ferlinghetti has honored two great visual artists in his large canvases Pablo (1991-92) and Van Gogh (2008). He portrays Picasso, whose image is rendered in elemental yet easily recognizable form, as a magician – a conjuror of visual magic possessed of demonic energy who wields his brush like a sorcerer’s wand.
Van Gogh (2009) is a much more powerful painting visually and appears to be more carefully and deliberately composed and rendered than Pablo. In this canvas, the monumental and solitary figure of Van Gogh is depicted as striding heroically through a barren, hostile-looking landscape (a symbol of life itself?) clutching his easel and canvases. The energetic brushwork and bold black and yellow colors (yellow was Van Gogh’s favorite color) successfully combine to serve as powerful expressive and symbolic forces. Ferlinghetti’s painting brings to mind Clyfford Still’s highly expressive canvas Untitled (1938) in which a lone, naked figure also strides boldly through a raw, primitive landscape (some have interpreted this figure to be the fiercely independent Still himself).
Humor and irony play significant roles in a number of pieces in this exhibition. Ferlinghetti has plunged into the world of fashion design (move over Jean Paul Gaultier) with his Underwear Series (2008) consisting of white T-shirts and nightgowns decorated with hand-painted slogans such as Vulva, Vidi, Vici… and Abandon All Despair… that hang in the museum gallery like laundry on a domestic clothesline. His wonderfully ironic painting on burlap titled Nothing so Well Records a Life as a Face (2009) consists of nothing more than the energetically rendered head of a wild, crazy man with a big grin on its face. Despite its irony, this piece brings to mind Rembrandt’s tragic and moving self-portrait (1669) as an old man at the end of life, slightly bent over, toothless, stripped by fate of wives, children, patrons, money, and fame grinning widely at the viewer from out of an existential void.