Struggling to Stay Above Water
“Every stilled thing is the ghost of another.”
Words and letters turn up one way or another in many works by visual artists. Tony Fitzpatrick doesn’t use poetry in his work, he makes poetry out of it. In a piece by Fitzpatrick, words aren’t stenciled in, as they are in Larry Rivers’s paintings; they’re not metaphysical slogans, as you find in Jenny Holzer’s projections; nor are they presented as objects in their own right, as on Ed Ruscha’s canvases. Some of the words in Fitzpatrick’s work are handwritten and have the ferocity and jab of raw notebook writing. But most are Exacto-bladed out of old matchbook covers and labels that he collects by the thousands. The phrases in these pieces outslogan the old ad copy they’re made from. Embedded in constellations of old-timey illustrations, enclosed in staves of musical notes, and surrounded by a gallimaufry of silhouetted birds and dangerously indescribable female collage-creatures, these are texts born from humid, febrile dreams.
It’s from his passion for poetry that Fitzpatrick gets his instinct for what form can accomplish, and like every poet he has a not-so-secret desire to break somebody’s heart. In an interview for the Times-Picayune he said: “We love in poetry but, unfortunately, we live in prose. Sometimes the two are not congruent. What we remember of love is usually a fiction. What we aspire to is haiku: short, sweet, perfect.” Yet his true medium is elegy. He often mentions Andrei Codrescu’s essay, “Human Remedies Against the Devil,” which notes that one of the rewards of living in an old city is that the dead far outnumber the living. As Fitzpatrick puts it himself, the dead “still speak to us through wars and floods and hurricanes. The past, and history itself, hold up a mirror because in this place every stilled thing is the ghost of another.” When it comes to an unfathomable disaster like Katrina, normal modes of representation won’t work. Fitzpatrick says, “I’ve thought long and hard about how to make art about this holy place. I didn’t want to draw pictures of people trapped on rooftops, or struggling to stay above the water. The images from cable news seemed pornographic in their quest to wrap tragedy around the commercial breaks. So, for now, I’ve decided on words. . . . I’ve decided to draw poems.”—DS