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K.S. Ernst
Kaldron Survey

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 and proposals.

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 closed.

The sequences of poems presented here should give a basic introduction to her work.

- Karl Young

Digital Dancing

In The Grain Of Love

The Poetry Of Paper

Workbook Entries

Correspondence Art Solos and Choruses
by K.S. Ernst, Marilyn R. Rosenberg, and David Cole

Essay by Karl Young at Big Bridge Magazine

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