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drawing from / drawing form: composition as exploration

with Rachel Bers

“That is, a line is not an arrow, it’s its events”  – Alice Notley


ETG: About a year ago, Rachel Bers and I began working together in her studio with the idea that we would collaborate in some form or another. Without a specific starting point, we began by talking about our work, delineating the affinities that have been there since we met in 2001 while she was at RISD and I was at Brown. This is a description of our collaborative project, "t*ypography" (Sol Koffler Gallery, Providence, RI 2001):

“t*pography” was a collaborative exploration of legibility, vocabulary, and physical/psychological location. We were interested in treating language as both a visual object and a symbolic referent simultaneously. Working on either side of the gallery windows so that we could not verbally communicate, we responded to each other’s marks and gestures over the period of a week. The layers of language, both legible and illegible, attempted to map a shifting internal terrain. As the project progressed, language and geography unfurled into each other: the movement of the words mimicked meandering “rivers,” and the “rivers” in turn seemed to be unraveled words. The project was a constant revision, which often involved erasing a day’s work and replacing it with work that addressed not only what seemed to be missing from the day before, but what was present and new in our relation and response to each other that day.

published in Chain #9: dialogues

RB & ETG: Though the material content of our work has evolved since then, the nature of our working process 10 years later is very much the same. It is a responsive, open-ended experiment with modes of composition based on our shared investment in strategies of formal abstraction. We are drawing from ideas, events, experiences, and drawing form in a cyclical and reciprocal movement, which also manifests in our individual movements in and out of textual or visual creation.

Last April our conversations revolved around "the line," both poetic and visual, and what it can contain or describe in terms of systems, events, emotion, and experience. We wanted to experiment with how deviations from the logic of the line might signify escaping, or exceeding, one’s own history, psychology, and personal framework. From there we moved on to questions of arrangement and experiments with composition.

The first manifestation was a simple pamphlet pairing text with images:


a line is a / movement with color / delphinium / fifths // a line / is a color / with duration / overnight / emergent / spring / delphinium / a line is / a space / with duration / over / lay / inter / penetration / proximity / respondent / blue / other

RB: As we searched for another idea/concept that might govern our moves in relation to one another, our shared interest in scores and chance operations led us to John Cage’s Fontana Mix and to the standard stoppages of Marcel Duchamp. These were productive reference points for thinking through deliberate but non-binding approaches to composition—both individually and together—but ultimately, we moved away from them as our own responsive logic/instincts gained momentum. Continuing to work alongside one another, the pieces of writing and sculptural drawings began to interact and were movable, in conversation:


ETG: In these compositions the 8 1/2 x 11 page was impossible. I wanted the language/page to be more flexible in order to interact with your "standard droppages" (as I kept calling them) and color forms. The presence of the typewriter in your studio allowed me to compose in a very different way—

etg wall text 1
etg wall text 2

with strips of paper, odd shapes of scrap paper—so that the written compositions responded to and were able to interact in a more dynamic way with your sculptures.


RB: And my concerns with linear systems took shape in paragraphs that borrowed phrases from your poems (giving my own thinking a useful looseness) some of which migrated back into further iterations of your poems. The following excerpts trace a sampling of this activity:

emergent / lingual / insinuated to / concern one’s thought / with lines / is wrapt / un / is merged / is / with / out / side / out frame / is / juggernaut / perhaps / its which / which / compositions are / blue / lake / blue / expression is / blue / orange / ocean / another / weird / vessel / shapes of / transparency / hell is / hellish / point of / entry / is / break / color / columns / in / forms / transparency / my / element / moves / my / element (ETG)

Insinuated to concern one's thoughts with lines

a resolved form given extra limbs, prosthetic pathways to extend its reach, its potential for movement and unlocking. Gleaned from the field on which it sits—a field of scattered paths unfastened from points of arrival or departure. And then in comes a wave, movement remembered from another life.

My element moves my element (RB)

a phrase, a fragment caught in a tendril

messages from another dimension, a contradictory ocean

we are all having this encounter

with a place holder, a place

a wire frames an ocean
a lattice dome with shadows

ensnares the world




escapes (ETG)

but here there’s another logic, the drive to cluster. Made by chance, what’s a figure to do but try to make sense of the fact of figure and try to participate in its own con/figuration. I think it best not to get in the way of that instinct—that renders it legible, intelligible to itself.

But it does not need to be left alone eternally—trapped within its own logic, strangled by its own self-same limbs—these can also serve to support it, drag it across a surface that will register its traces and resist its pull. And this is where another’s system comes in—sufficient unto itself and so wholly insufficient to the task at hand—which is? To produce a tension that moves towards release, that shows the way but doesn’t necessarily follow its own instruction. (RB)


blind / contour / drives / to / cluster / pull / to / ward / parallel // point of / entry / is / in / verge / into / space / from / the / field / on / which / it / sits // registers / the / surface / across / which / it / traces / resists / its / pull // psychology / of a / closed / system // internal / interior / logic / expressed / in / proximity (ETG)

RB: Shallow drawer; undulations above the plane. A patchwork of found systems—once devised, now defunct but still singing—


In my own studio notebooks, so much of what I am trying to work out is how to tangle (visually) with systems—how to build one to my specifications so that it embodies within it the possibility of escape from it. And I think the opportunity that our collaboration gave me to think through both written and visual composition, opened up another way of engaging with the question—another way to tangle. Escape/expand written conundrums through visual composition; escape/expand visual conundrums through writing. I do think I came to know a little better what I am after by reading—and often writing through—your responses to my work. One passage of yours, fairly far along in our exchange embodies it:

but hope creates from its own wreck its own wreck it contemplates combines its love it loves it wrecks its love in a look creates its own hope it looks its love away to contemplate the things it contemplates it from its own wreck creates the things it contemplates it complicates its own wreck its hope in things (ETG)

ETG: I felt my writing change by being written in conversation with your sculptures and being composed on paper that could then be manipulated and sculpted itself—it raised questions for me of reading, and hierarchies—does the visual aspect of the work overshadow the written text? How to balance the visual experience and the reading experience? Or rather, how to invite new ways of reading? The text itself became another element in the composition—words arranged to form the text arranged to form the composition. Some of the writing in this project feels abstracted even to myself—a portion of the text was taken from old notebooks and re-written into this project. The ideas and events that generated the original poems were not pressing—the words were rearranged in the present context, out of the ideas and events of the present. There is not a particular beginning or end to the writing. It recycles and cycles through in new relations. This type of movement—re-writing, recombining, relating, reconfiguring—that has driven our collaborative process was also driving my writing.

Another weird vessel—aren't we all having this encounter with an oversized organ overtaking us on the high seas—Here the sea is not made of waves but again of lines, a map of something impossible to fathom; not currents or depths, not navigational indicators, but messages from another dimension, a contradictory plane. (RB)

Rachel Bers is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She received a BA in French and Semiotics from Brown University and an MFA in printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design. Her most recent exhibition was at 443 PAS.

Originally Published: April 16th, 2014

E. Tracy Grinnell is the author of Helen: A Fugue (Belladonna Elder Series #1, 2008), Some Clear Souvenir (O Books, 2006), and Music or Forgetting (O Books, 2001), as well as the limited edition chapbooks Mirrorly, A Window (flynpyntar press, 2009), Leukadia (Trafficker Press, 2008),  Hell and Lower Evil (Lyre Lyre Pants on Fire, 2008), Humoresque (Blood Pudding/Dusie #3, 2008) Quadriga, a collaboration with Paul...