Squeak Carnwath's Essential Versions, an oil and alkyd painting that depicts lined-paper with the handwritten phrase “Art, Like Science and philosophy presents essential versions of Reality” scrawled upon it, adorns the front cover of John Yau's chapbook Exhibits (Letter Machine Editions, 2010). While the painting looks remarkably similar to an actual piece of lined-paper with childish handwriting, the artist composed the entire piece with paint alone.
In an online interview, Carnwath claims her art is not meant to be a representation of reality, but instead challenges us to question “a different reality, though, like the reality of how we navigate the world. Is that real, or is that all in our imagination?” The fact that Essential Versions appears to look so much like its real world counterpart forces us to question the realness of reality, as well as how art and imagination provide us with their own essential realities in need of navigation.
Indeed, art does present us with an essential version of reality that must not be neglected. But the reality of art and the reality of our daily lives, as demonstrated in Essential Versions, oftentimes overlap and thus become nearly indistinguishable from one another. During November 2006, John Yau interviewed Squeak Carnwath for The Brooklyn Rail. Therein, the poet and the artist address the intersection of reality and art:
Yau: I see the writing on [your] paintings as an interrogation: What is painting, where does it come from?Carnwath: And what is reality?Yau: Yes, you're interrogating this thing that you're making. What does it do? Where does it come from? How does it function in the world? What kind of communication is it capable of? I would say that you're trying to interrogate the limits of painting.Carnwarth: And still keep it painting.
In addition to the fact that Carnwath explicitly questions reality, she and Yau raise a series of rhetorical questions, particularly “Where does [art] come from” and “How does it function in the world”? Later in the interview, they answer these questions, somewhat elliptically, when speaking about art's ability to expand itself by “absorbing” the world around it:
Yau: And there’s another, earlier painting, that I saw, where I felt like you were sitting in your studio and you copied down into the painting something that you heard on the radio that day.Carnwath: Yes, there is a painting which says, “I heard on the radio about this guy who stabbed himself.”Yau: That’s it. And it’s really interesting because what happens is the space the painting occupies becomes bigger.
Art, then, expands the space it occupies by absorbing elements of the real world; but in doing so, art also blurs the distinction between the two spheres, so much so that works like Essential Versions become visually synonymous with that reality. Again, this maneuver, to Carnwath's mind, is not about representation; instead, it questions the reality of the real and the illusion of realness reality produces.
How, then, does Carnwath's aesthetic and conceptual concerns relate to Yau's Exhibits? Just as the artist incorporates phrases from the radio into her paintings to interrogate reality, Yau creates his poems in a similar manner. Exhibits contains twenty-two sets of five, more often than not terse sentences that feel at once familiar and strange. Take, for instance, the following excerpts:
Internet access is free as long as you answer a few simple questions. (1)…Our fully licensed and legal union can reunite you with nearly all your lost opportunities. (2)…According to the Inventory Data we have on hand, you are not yet born. (7)…We regret to inform you that you is no longer in stock. (10)…Signing up for Free Membership works best in a failing economy. (14)…Employees must ash their hands before returning to the barracks. (19)…There will be no more Coming Attractions until further notice. (21)…Starting tomorrow, individuals will be canceled at an alarming rate. (22)
In these sentences, Yau mines the language of business and consumer culture, twisting them ever so slightly in order to launch an inquiry into the linguistic nature of capitalism. Through absorption of everyday life, the poems in Exhibits offer a humorous but bleak view of humanity. A “fully licensed and legal union” claims to be able to “reunite you with nearly all your lost opportunities,” but such a reunion seems unlikely due to the fact “Inventory Data” informs us that “you are not yet born.” Of course, even if you had been born, “you is no longer in stock.” If we're “counting on these episodes to fulfill” us in some way (7), then we are sorely mistaken because they don't “add up...in the way you think” (15). Taken as an aggregate, these sentences make known that consumer culture saps us of our individuality. Yes, we are being “canceled at an alarming rate” (22).
If the absorptive effect of Yau's poetry reveals that we have been “canceled,” or even worse that we were never even “in stock,” what purpose does it serve? Is it merely to inform us that we have officially become products ourselves? And outdated ones at that? If so, wouldn't blissful ignorance better serve us? While lingering in uncritical oblivion, no doubt, may be a less stressful option (perhaps even preserving one's sanity), Yau's chapbook asks us to confront our contemporary condition head-on through a poetry-based inquiry. True, the answers may not be the ones we wanted, but perhaps, as Adorno wrote in Minimal Moralia, although such an inquiry reveals that we are inextricably “entangled” in the capitalist machine, it also offers us the “infinitesimal freedom that lies in knowledge as such.”