Visual poetry is a delicate thing. Making tangible the intangible, trying its best to physically emote the fragility of a spoken cadence. The Concrete Poetry movement of the 1960s ushered in a wave of artists who found inspiration in the balanced task of typography and prose. Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, Anna Barham, Matthew Brannon, Henri Chopin, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alasdair Gray, Philip Guston, David Hockney, Karl Holmqvist have all incorporated text-based art into their practice, with varied and provocative results.
The summer exhibition at the ICA, "Poor. Old. Tired. Horse." takes its title from a journal of the same name founded by Ian Hamilton Finlay. P.O.T.H. explored the limits of visible language, and Finlay's concrete poems had roots in symbolism, Soviet Constructivism, graphic design, and Cubism. He made words from forms, and language from shape. In one example from the ICA show, Finlay even created a poem from a grid marked with symbols with a correlating key. As a poet-artist, Finlay was not satiated with the succinct devious word-and-image experiment. He infused visual poems with color, materiality, and substance. He painted poems on tortoise shells, he constructed poems as sculptures in forests. He didn't stop at the boundaries of language and meaning, maintaining that "stupidity reduces language to words."
In an impressive survey of Finlay’s work as well as those of other concrete poets, the ICA promotes works which may be less familiar in a medium rarely exhibited as the central theme of a major summer show.
Exhibited artists include Liliane Lijn, who made “poem machines” in the late 1960s by writing poems on motorized, turning cones. Her kinetic sculptures celebrate both the momentum of speed and language. Her “visions of sound” are hypnotic, the meaning of the poems altered by the endless, infinite turning of the mechanism. Ferdinand Kriwet, who makes plaques of poems which resemble official civic signage, is shown in the same room. His “text signs” use a circular motif reminiscent of both common street signs and religious talismans. Both Lijn and Kriwet use circular motions and forms to transform language from brief poetry into endless mandalas.
Alasdair Gray’s images are reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and William Blake, interpreting the visual element of poetry in a more literal way. Philip Guston is also featured, his work displayed like oversized comic strips. His “Poem-Pictures” experiment with written text and shape parallel to his unique drawings.
Other interesting works include typographical experiments by Vito Acconci and Carl Andre; Christopher Knowles' "typings" from the 1970s and 1980s; Hockney's illustrations for Thirteen Poems From C.P. Cavafy; and Matthew Brannon's deceptively simple text experiments.
The graphic potential of language is not lost on any of these artists, unlike the disregard most often assigned to written words. These artists, bridging the roots of Concrete Poetry in the 1960s to contemporary experimentation, all recognize both the visual and poetic possibilities of text as art. The works in P.O.T.H. are beautiful, strange, and challenging, and there is enough material here to challenge anyone with a poetic or aesthetic inclination.