The Art of Randomness
It’s probably telling when the most interesting object in an art exhibition was designed for you to look at with your eyes closed. You get an inkling that visual art might be in for a bit of a rough go.
The exhibition in question is “Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts,” on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And the object of note is “The Dreamachine,” an infernal contraption designed in the early 1960s by Burroughs’ frequent collaborator, artist Brion Gysin, and by Burroughs’ then-lover, British mathematician Ian Sommerville.
Several versions of “The Dreamachine” exist; the one at LACMA was fabricated in San Francisco in 1994 by David Woodard. It’s a motorized vertical cylinder that stands about 3 feet tall and spins around the axis of a bright electrical light. An angled pattern of lozenge-shaped holes creates a flickering, stroboscopic effect.
You’re not meant to look directly at this carnival of lights. (A cautionary sign also warns those susceptible to epileptic seizures to stay away.) Instead you sit on an adjacent bench with your eyes shut tight, while the ambient flickering causes rhythmic optical effects to appear on the inside of your eyelids.
Imagine a glowing, asymmetrical kaleidoscope unfolding within your eyes. Some liken those effects to hallucinations. Burroughs and his friends likened them to the strange soup of inexplicable shapes and images that characterize dreams, which defy rationality and logic.
The 82-year-old writer’s famous novels--from “Junkie,” “Queer” and “The Naked Lunch,” written in the 1950s, to “My Education: A Book of Dreams,” published last year--try to dishevel language. They court randomness and accident. The aim is to dislodge the controlled (and controlling) structures of language, with its law-abiding orderliness.
“Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts” gives a pretty good introduction to this central feature of the author’s literary work. The impetus for the show is probably a group of 22 collages, produced in collaboration with Gysin around 1965 and meant to be printed in “The Third Mind,” a proposed anthology of all their literary experiments and theoretical articles.
The collages on view are a selection from about 70 acquired by LACMA in 1993. They’re composed from fragments of typescript, doodles, small bits of printed text, little black-and-white photographs, advertising logos, letterpress words, panels from comic strips, sections of newspaper headlines and more.
Usually these elements are composed in a seemingly random fashion on notebook-size paper hand-printed with a rough-hewn black grid. The orderly grid acts as a modern scaffold, against which the unruly collage elements rebel.
Visually, these works recall the well-known collages made in San Francisco about a decade earlier by artist Jess. The sheer volume of printed stuff in our daily deluge of modern information inevitably creates random, unexpected collisions of words and images; these artists mine that landscape for gold.
Where Jess’ paste-ups feel like a romantic and nostalgic salvage operation, though, Gysin and Burroughs’ tone is gritty and caustic. Jess courts love among the ruins, Gysin and Burroughs surf the maelstrom.
The LACMA show also includes a dozen or so of Burroughs’ collages and notebooks not directly related to “The Third Mind.” These too are interesting as indicators of the writer’s developing approach to his work.
Then, however, come more than 100 other paintings, sculptures, photographs and mixed-media pieces. The show begins to feel padded, Burroughs’ place within recent art increasingly distorted.
Thirty-one portraits of the writer by other artists make for a pleasant homage. Sixteen works Burroughs made in collaboration with other artists--Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Taaffe and Keith Haring among them--are not very compelling. Finally, a dispiriting array of 43 of Burroughs’ own negligible paintings and sculptures from the 1980s and 1990s is here, matched by 27 independent, decidedly minor works by other artists, each of whom cites Burroughs as a considerable influence.
It’s reasonable to ask why a writer is being highlighted at an art museum. LACMA curator of photography Robert Sobieszek, who organized the show, is successful in elucidating how visual ideas were important to Burroughs’ writing.
But the curator also wants to remove Burroughs’ paintings and sculptures from the long shadow cast by his writing and let them be seen as works of art in their own right. Alas, they wither in that light.
Take the shotgun paintings. Plywood boards, painted with calligraphic markings and sometimes with photographs attached, have been blasted with shotgun pellets. The calligraphy reads as illegible writing, the photographs as memories of inchoate yearnings and the shotgun blasts as the legacy of a marriage between power and randomness. The result is a tired group of achingly old-fashioned pictures, whose apparent obliviousness to art’s postwar history endows them with a surely unintended aura of corniness--a lame joke about “wild” modern art.
Burroughs seems unmindful of (and uninterested in) such blatant and varied artistic precedents as Jess, Mark Tobey and Niki de Saint-Phalle, which contextually color your perceptions of his work. In fact earlier artistic traditions exert precisely the kind of control on perceiving Burroughs’ paintings that, in his writing, he worked so hard to explode.
You can’t even look at the shotgun paintings without thinking of the most notorious episode in Burroughs’ biography, the 1949 killing of his wife, Joan Vollmer, in a Mexico City hotel room, when the writer failed in his attempt to shoot a six-ounce water glass off the top of her head. Claiming that he makes paintings within a uniquely independent frame of reference somehow separate from other art or calling his paintings cross-disciplinary, Postmodern and deconstructionist doesn’t get him off the hook, either.
A few years ago, Burroughs’ fatally macabre game of “William Tell in Mexico” inspired a provocative videotape by artist Patty Podesta, which is far less sanguine in its reckoning than any of the homages in the LACMA show. (Needless to say, the video isn’t included.)
Yes, “Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts” shows that visual ideas have been important to the octogenarian author and that some artists have admired his writing. But if his literary significance isn’t a subject about which I can speak with any confidence, his slightness as an artist comes through loud and clear.
* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through Oct. 6. Closed Mondays.
ANOTHER CHAPTER: Missing words haunt William Burroughs show at Track 16. F6