Poetry and Prisons

I’m not that interested in verbal poetry. When a poem does catch my attention it seems to be one that creates a verbal image of a visual image in very simple language, something that I “see” in my mind and places me with the scene—a new experience.

Like in Robert  Frost’s Mending Wall:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.


Or Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues:

Johnny’s in the basement

Mixing up the medicine

I’m on the pavement

Thinking about the government

The man in the trench coat

Badge out, laid off

Says he’s got a bad cough

Wants to get it paid off

Several years ago I came to the realization (finally) that the art that I enjoy the most tends to be that which gives me an instant of poetry, that makes me understand, or see, or feel something differently. An instant where I think anew about something. Robert Frank said something related to that:

“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”

As I recall, my first notice of this came in looking at a small photograph by Rich Rollins (a colleague who teaches photography at Marylhurst University). It was a picture of a building that was unfamiliar to me. I asked Rich what building that was and he said it was the Fine Arts Building in downtown Portland—a building that I’d seen hundreds of times. But I hadn’t seen it the way Rich saw it and his photograph showed his seeing to me.

This is prologue to saying that I’m getting a similar  kind of experience with the current exhibition (through May 17) at The Art Gym at Marylhurst University (marylhurst.edu/theartgym).

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Opening day talk, April 21

Julie Green — The Last Supper: 500 Plates 

Buddy Bunting — The Prison Industrial Complex

Julie Green shows 500 plates depicting the actual last meal requests of condemned prisoners. Each plate, and it’s description, is a haiku-like instance where we are given a straightforward  image painted in a matter-of-fact way, on a plate, in blue—a modern delftware look.

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But each instance draws us in to consider the ultimate individual humanity of the requester. Each of these people who we have decided to deprive of life becomes someone we must think about now. And each of us will think in our own way, in our own time. It is important that we see 500 of these plates together, to somehow, in each case, pull an individual from a crowd.

Buddy Bunting gives us the anonymity of the containers for the prisoners in huge spare works on paper.



Some of these bleak views are 20-30 feet wide. The wide open spaces of the west, with the boxed enclosed spaces for prisoners.

We have precedents for this kind of straightforward presentation in Ed Ruscha’s books Twenty-Six  Gasoline Stations or  Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and in tract house photos by Lewis Baltz. In all of these cases the normally anonymous is presented and we are beckoned to pay attention. With Bunting’s works we consider the prison, not the romanticized prison of Piranesi (where we might imagine the screams of the tortured):



Or the scenic view of Alcatraz.



In Bunting’s works everything is silent and nothing is beautiful except for the quality rendering by the artist.

It is the bare understatement—down to the key point of focus, with no frills—in the works of both of these artists that allows meaning to be coaxed from the mind of the viewer.

“Less is more.” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe


ps. It is interesting what one learns when fact checking what seems to be surely known. Evidently Robert Browning used the line “Well, less is more, Lucrezia” in his poem Andrea Del Sarto, Called “The Faultless Painter”  in 1855. I can’t hardly begin to read that poem.


Sullivan, Cicero and Shutters

Architect Louis Sullivan said “form ever follows function.”

Shutters for windows serve a couple utilitarian functions. One is to protect the windows from flying storm debris. Another is to provide privacy, security and ventilation when the windows themselves are open. In order to do this the shutters are hinged so that they can open and close, and they are made to fit the window opening tightly.


Nowadays there is another function: decoration. And, perhaps nostalgia. The function that required hinging seems to have been lost, and the original link between form and function is lost.

In some cases this decorative function—separated from the protective functions requiring hinging— seems to part of the original design of the house.


But then there are the most common examples where store bought shutters are tacked onto houses in ill fitting ways.IMG_0638

Clothing analogy: pants way too short.

And there are those that can’t be explained by any understanding of shutter utilitarian function:



I’ve come to believe that this is an example of what the Roman philosopher/statesman Cicero was talking about over 2,000 years ago:

In the estimation of poems, paintings, and a great many other works of art… ordinary people enjoy and praise things that do not deserve praise. The reason for this, I suppose, is that those productions have some point of excellence which catches the fancy of the uneducated, because these have not the ability to discover the points of weakness in any particular piece of work before them. And so, when they are instructed by experts, they readily abandon their former opinion.  (from On Duties)

People are looking for some sign of a link to older american architecture. This may not be the “point of excellence” that Cicero refers to, but it is a sign of meaningfulness—though misunderstood.

And misused…


Wildly misused.