“Just say No
We don’t have to say No
to family values,
cause we never
think about them;
and compassion.”–John Giorno “Just Say No To Family Values”
Declaring a wide range of witty, thought-provoking and sometimes, wonderfully perverse phrases such as “LIFE IS A KILLER,” “A HURRICANE IN A DROP OF CUM,” “PREFER CRYING IN A LIMO TO LAUGHING ON A BUS,” and “JUST SAY NO TO FAMILY VALUES,” iconic New York poet and artist John Giorno’s current exhibition SPACE FORGETS YOU at Elizabeth Dee Gallery lyrically reinvigorates text-based artwork with a strong connection to poetic techniques.
From Barbara Kruger to Richard Prince to countless other art market favorites, text-based art has become pervasive, inescapable and sadly, somewhat tired–an easy seller for blockbuster exhibitions and art fairs. However, Giorno’s recent text-based paintings and works on paper transcend the genre to erase the boundaries between fine art and poetry.
An important innovator in poetry, performance and visual art, as well as activism, John Giorno is an unmatched figure in New York’s countercultural scene, playing a role in some of the most romanticized periods of New York history from the Beat Generation to Warhol’s Factory to the Blank Generation. Asserting the personal and political, Giorno’s in-your-face, unapologetic and insightful poetry investigates all the best of the counterculture from drugs and alcohol to Buddhism to old New York sleaze to his own queer sexuality and sexual escapades with seminal figures such as Warhol and Keith Haring.
Not only are Giorno’s poems influential, but his recognizably rhythmic reading style has defined his literary, as well as performance career. While Giorno hit the big screen in Warhol’s films such as the drowsy Sleep, Giorno explored multimedia performances with sampled sound recordings in the 1960s alongside Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. At the same time, Giorno also began experimenting with visual works, inspired by the aesthetics and techniques of concrete poetry.
Continuing his longtime interest in transforming lyrical verses into the visual, Giorno’s SPACE FORGETS YOU features three distinct series of works–vivid rainbow-colored silkscreened paintings, more subtle graphite drawings and even softer watercolors. Despite their differences in mediums, several of Giorno’s stark white, all capitalized phrases appear in each of the bodies of works.
While Giorno’s paintings and works on paper are captivating without delving into the actual words themselves, the works take on a deeper meaning once the viewer recognizes the phrases are sourced from Giorno’s poems. Whether unpublished lines from poems or titles of well-known pieces such as “THANX 4 NOTHING,” Giorno’s artworks display a complex connection to poetic techniques, as well as the subjects and history of the poems.
After establishing the relationship between Giorno’s writing and visual art, the brilliant aesthetic play with words and visualization of reading performances becomes more apparent. Similar to the typographical arrangement of concrete poetry, the placement of Giorno’s phrases, their line breaks and the size of the text construct a palpable sense of rhythm, mirroring the experience of listening to Giorno recite his poems.
Furthering his visual depiction of orating poetry, the three separate bodies of works alter the meaning, volume and emotion contained within each phrase. While Giorno’s words repeat throughout the exhibition, the meaning of the phrases can be interpreted differently in a thoroughly queer rainbow painting or in a paler and quieter sky-blue watercolor.
Despite their placement within a gallery, the experience of viewing Giorno’s artworks is perhaps closer to a poetry reading in a bar on the Bowery than gallery hopping in Chelsea. In order to further explore Giorno’s poetic art, I collected a series of videos portraying Giorno reading the poems connected to the works shown in SPACE FORGETS YOU. Giorno is also scheduled to perform at the gallery on May 8 at 6:30PM: