Surrounded by words
just beyond our grasp
It was a regulation
traffic sign, but customized: After “DRIVE SLOW” someone
had carefully added “LY.” It was a reminder, just like
when the check-out line is marked “10 items or fewer,”
that I’m living in a city where people are serious about words.
Even, it seems, in pictures.
I recently talked with Pelle Cass, a photographer who combines text
and visual images. Cass, whose first name is pronounced “pell,”
has work in the permanent collections of the Fogg Art Museum, the
Addison Gallery of Art in Andover, the Polaroid Collection, and
the deCordova Museum in Lincoln, and available at Gallery Kafayas
in the South End. Cass himself lives in a world of words and images.
In fact, his wife, Margaret Holmes, is a writer whose work was recently
nominated for inclusion in an anthology of Best New American Voices.
Though Cass uses text from a variety of sources, he sees poetry
and photography as natural partners.
“Photography is like a lyric poem,” says Cass. “I’m
trying to show a little the way I think, the way I feel. To me,
poems work in the same way a picture does--combining a bunch of
things to see if you can come up with something that affects someone.”
The poetry references in Cass’s photographs often come from
Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, William Carlos Williams, and Jorie Graham.
In one, Koch’s “Sleeping With Women” becomes a
sensual mass of deep curls. In another, Williams’s “This
is just to say / I have eaten / the plums that were in / the icebox”
is written on a pear.
In most of his photographs you can’t read the words. Words
are seen backwards on a vase, or cut, jumbled, twisted into landscapes.
The effect reminds me of how words, written and spoken, hurled at
us every minute, sometimes blur into the wah-wah-wah of Charlie
Brown’s teacher in the Peanuts comic strip. Cass’s photographs
give the viewer a place where the words lie at a foggy remove just
beyond comprehension. It can create a little island of quiet Cass
describes as “language dissolving into pre-verbal experience”
the way the sounds of poetry sometimes do.
Even when the words are legible, they are positioned in ways that
make us see them differently. A headline about the capture of Saddam
Hussein, “News brings anger, joy, confusion,”curls on
a background of textured fabric. The letters of the word, “equality”
are tossed randomly on each other. In a photograph titled, “Abstract”
a few words can be read but most are frustratingly illegible on
their urgent-looking page. “What I’m about to tell you
means absolutely nothing,” says another that uses Cass’s
own words on Mobius strips.
“I don’t feel the need to understand,” Cass says
about both the text he chooses and the images that result. “I
tend to like confused pictures and I try not to have any rules.
There is no reason in the world that it has to make sense if it
works--that’s the visual artist speaking.”
It’s the visual artist’s reminder to those of us who
live in a world of words that sometimes we need a new way to experience
words. We need to step back and see them, or hear them, as if for
the first time, to remember their power and how they can so easily
be manipulated or worn away. And how we might keep them pure.
Photographs are at www.pellecass.com.
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com.