All sorts of people speak of exploring the dimensions of literary
and artistic possibilities. K.S. Ernst does that literally.
Her earliest visual poetry, from the late 1960s, began with spatial
exploration of text, primarily playing on negative space in relation
to constellations and clusters of letters. One of the directions in which
this lead included the breakdown of letters into component parts,
usually relating to the sensuality of stroke segments and
junctures. Perhaps her most important work in this area appeared as
her "G-Strings" and "G is for Georgia" in which the letter "g" gets broken
down into segments of curves and angles which work with or against the
logic of stroke components as they are usually analyzed by calligraphers
and typographers. Many of these appear in discrete boxes, with plenty
of space between them, but relating to other boxes on the immediate
or adjoining pages.
Like many poets who came of age in the 1960s, running a
press has been essentialism to Ernst, and has followed her orientation
toward getting poetry out in the world where it can be seen. In
this she made interesting use of the mail art network. Under her
Press Me Close imprint, she issued a magazine called Place Stamp
Here, a zine published as sets of postcards. Many packets went to mail
artists. This set up a variation on the "add to and pass on" tendency
in mail art. The post cards had visual poetry on one side, and many
of those who received the packets sent them to other mail artists
with new work on the other side. Ernst's next magazine came in the
form of visual poetry T-shirts. As with many zines, the authors got
"contributors' copies" and litterally filled them out
and animated them, moving participatory art into a less formal venue
than usual. Ernst also took an active role in the correspondance
art wing of the mail art movement, engaging in lengthy collaborations,
most fruitfully with Marilyn R. Rosenberg and David Cole.
However flat the surfaces of pages sent through the mail may be,
mail art was essentially volumetric in the extensions of its netwrok
throughout the world. By the early 80s, Ernst worked with a more
immediately tangible type of volumetric poetry. In book art and in
sculptures, Ernst used wood as a base for ceramic letters, the
letters ranging in thickness from 1/2 to 6 inches.
One of the most important aspects of the wood base and ceramic
letter works is the way Ernst plays letters that lie flat against
the wood surface against those attached on their sides or mounted
on an angle. Some of these create almost Escheresque effects by
setting up a base in something like the planular form most people
expect from print, then disrupting the expectations. In other
instances, the placement of letters on different planes, each
paralleled within its set, creates pleasing echoes, perhaps reminiscent
of rhyme. The grains and warm tones of the wood and the smooth, white
surfaces of the letters harmonize nicely. Ernst also uses letters of
this type alone, creating optical depth and rhythm by the way they
stack up or interlink. In addition to wood and ceramic letters, Ernst
makes use of such materials as cloth and mirrors. Though many people have
worked with similar processes in recent years, Ernst was considerably
ahead of the curve. It seems important to note that Ernst's materials for
these pieces are things you would expect to find in a hardware store for
use around the house, and that the ceramic letters can also be used for
advertising and in utilitarian signs in public places.
Somewhat less dramatically, but just as compellingly, Ernst draws
on large vocabularies of materials in collages, some of
which should be considered bas reliefs. Here the articulation of
dimensions often becomes a play of textures, some subtle, some
gripping. The collages may operate through the play of different
paper finishes, or they may move to cloth and other fabrics.
Ripped or otherwise roughened treatment can enhance textures as
well as serve as metaphors. The spectrum of collages moves into
works with auxiliary units hanging from them or leading away
from or into them, sometimes resembling the intertwining of letters
in the wood and ceramic pieces.
At present, Ernst works extensively with computer software to generate
images. Even here, the play of textures takes
interesting and at times surprising turns. There may be few surfaces
more intractably flat than computer screens, and, true to form, Ernst
has an uncanny ability to play highly tactile image elements against
deliberate usage of the cold, smooth flatness inherent in the medium.
In some instances, the paradoxes of flat versus textured create effects
similar to those achieved by the planes in the sculptural work.
Much computer generated visual poetry looks like ads for such programs
as PhotoShop. Ernst's does not - she is too sensitive to the dimensions
of her art, whatever the medium, to become complacent in it.
Curiously, perhaps almost prophetically, some of Ernst's earlier
procedures foreshadow her work with computers. Some of the sculptural
pieces, for instance, only existed long enough to photograph.
"Towering Negativism," for instance, created by stacking up the letters
"N" and "o" in ceramic characters, was disassembled after
the photographs were developed, and the letters were used in other
pieces. Some of the photographs themselves become the poems, and
characteristics of photography contribute to it, rather than simply
acting as a device for registering an image. Some of the computer
work begins by placing objects on a scanner, then reworking the
image electronically. Recently, Ernst has employed watercolors, sometimes
as the base for images reworked on the computer, and occasionally as a
further step after the electronic imaging process. In some ways this may
represent an exploration of fluidity. This extends further when she uses
watercolor as a base for computer work - the smooth surface of the
computer screen lends itself beautifully to this kind of treatment.
Since 1978, Ernst has kept working notes. Marilyn R. Rosenberg sees some
of these works as conceptual art. In an ever evolving set of paradoxes, the
intense tactility and immediacy of the poems realized so far finds a
counterpart in the substanceless character of concept, her neat
diagrams and precise notation extending characteristics of Fluxus scores
Ernst came to visual poetry from lexical, not from a visual arts
background. Her lexical texts have tended toward brevity from the
beginning of her mature work. This does not mean that they are
simple. In the early poems, texts often involved puzzles, alternate
reading possibilities, repetition of brief phrases or sentences, and
texts that suggest that they are fragments of something larger.
The use of titles as part of the texts carries considerable
significance, and in more recent works these titles often become
the complete "text" in the alphabetical sense. The title of one
of the sculptural works is "goodbye." This appears at the base of
the piece on a single plane. The text outside the title
consists of the word "lover." Given the angles and positions
of the letters, this word could be read in several ways. The letter
positions could suggest the excitement and interconnection of love,
and they could just as easily suggest confusion and collapse. The word
"goodbye" in its straight forward solidity, brings either condition to
an abrupt and decisive close. In a sense, the title becomes much like
a door that has closed. This is further enhanced by the way
the "l" in "lover" falls completely forward, leaving the word "over"
to stand emphatically alone. Text in the conventional sense tends
to start from a plain or often repeated phrase, and puts a twist on
it, in some instances suggesting the word play in rock and
country-western music. The conventional text of "Out and About" is
simply the word "about" spread over wadded up cloth. The "o" however
is a much larger template for a rotary telephone, suggesting the
presence of a finger over the highly tactile fabric. Recent work at
times takes lexical text and erodes the letters in one way or
another. With much of this work, it is important to understand how
close Ernst's conception of writing can be to that of her long-time
collaborator, David Cole. Cole considered all the forms of his
painting, even putting paint on his feet and pacing on the picture plane
or covering his body with pigment and rolling on the canvas.
Perhaps there is a pleasant paradox in Ernst's notes as they
are published. In these, she returns to a more conventional
notion of what a text should be.
The tone of Ernst's work ranges from comic to contemplative, but
does not become aggressive, inconsiderate, or hostile. It's
difficult to find a poet in the current milieu less inclined to
verbal or visual rhetoric, cant, dead-ends, irrelevant decorations,
hieratic poses, and other types of obfuscation and distraction. This
naturally extends into one of her most winning features: the
ability to have a good time without becoming obnoxious.
Although this operates admirably through innumerable small-scale
decisions in her working methods, it also contributes to one of her
broadest concerns: to make poetry something that refuses to stay
The sequences of poems presented here should give a basic introduction
to her work.