Death of an Artist

Guy Beining's mature work participates fully in the general liquidation of the codes of representation which characterizes the best art of our time. If it is at all true that we are experiencing the wholesale conversion of the old hierarchies whereby meaning was produced and consumed and through which this meaning, in art at least, served to underwrite a power structure, then Beining belongs to a very small group of artists who have taken this energy of transformation as their central concern and are courageously riding at the razor's edge of the change, even to their own destruction as artists. Whereas the most important literary art of the great bourgeois period in the western world was dazzled with its abilities to reflect society's new material power, and the great art of the modern period continued to use the earlier signs to show the crumbling of their own basis, what we have now is different: in a culture based on the passive, continually frustrated consumption of signs, in which the older matrices of meaning have become antiquities (nature, the family, the state, so-called humanist values, religion, and so on), the best art now refuses to construct homogeneity but destroys by celebrating differences, resisting money, ending the division of labor, channeling desire and violence about a growing hollow core.

Beining's work in this respect shares concerns with that of other artists; there are the more extreme passages of Burroughs' Nova Express, Naked Lunch, The Ticket That Exploded, the Celine of Journey to the End of Night, Henry Miller's brutal and frank incorporation of the seamiest and most mundane qualities of the lives of disenfranchised losers in big cities, the sexual violence and perversions to be found in de Sade and Genet, and Beckett's elegant perfection of terminal despair in Endgame. Duchamp's formal/metaphysical ironies as well as the sophistication of Max Ernst's collage are other precedents. My point is twofold: Beining is a knowing artist who does not pretend to spring fully formed from the head of Zeus; as well, if the condition of culture and society today has taught us one thing it is the laughable futility of attempting to trace linear paths of development in the arts. Richard Kostelanetz, for example, has strategically "assembled" Aftertexts through collaging together passages from a wide variety of source texts. Michael Graves' proposed plan for redesigning the Whitney Museum consists of a pastiche of architectural motifs from Egyptian temples to self-conscious echoes of the International style. Eclecticism, the hallmark of Victorian architecture, in which past eras are exploited in a frantic attempt to stave off a confrontation with emptiness, is used only very rarely with interesting and important results, just as rarely, I might add, as a relatively more unified style is used to good end. Most art is derivative, imitative, thin posturing, melodramatic striving after effects, conciliatory, in the service of the marketplace (real or imagined), desperately courting present fame or short of that at least a bid for ultimate historical significance.

Beining's work I need hardly say suffers from none of these despicable and embarrassing qualities. It has been characterized as "experimental," a term much abused and perhaps of little critical value any longer. However that may be, the artist shows a fine command of a variety of the registers of his idiom, not just one. In his early A Bicentennial Piece of Mind (1976), coauthored with Phil Smith, verbal imagery which is loose, assocational, and open structurally mirrors the physical makeup of the "book," which takes the form of a title card and 20 cards, each of the latter charting a decade of from 1776 to 1976. The fact that these are unbound suggests that history itself for us today has become disjunctive, that there is no strict linear progression such as a hierarchized culture of power implants. Clearly the inner form, to use a term from Kandinsky, has dictated the outer physical structure of the art, a Romantic move.

Working in a more conventional mode in City Shingles (1977), the poet in 15 poems takes the city as theme. But it is the city of Baudelaire and Villon rather than that of Frank O'Hara. An oral-based sense of language's capabilities can be seen throughout: "past sills, sex, cells" (IV); "smelling fresh stain/ of suburbs" (X). No visual imagery or graphics accompany or inform the poems, which consequently rely upon the suprasegmental phonemes more heavily than in Beining's later verbal/visual work. Beining extends his concern for horizontality (cityscape = natural landscape transformed by man's intervention) in his long poem, "N.Y.C. Landscape," published originally in NRG (1978). The lyrics are straightforward, almost narrative, as the poet trades upon the accumulations of the past in order to have a foundation from which to stretch out into nothingness. Description through appeals to the senses of sight and sound and the use of the first person back up this move. Here we see an emerging focus: "I was beginning to speak so as not to end" and "I'll tell you everything exists to vanish." The painful ending through a vanishing that is never to be completed gradually moves into the center of the artist's work, and obliterates that center, cutting us loose from all moorings. The poet will exploit the tensions in the last finger-grasp to safety, disappearing.

Partially as a dodge away from the horrors of a melting syntax, and partially as a way of tentatively entering further into chaos, Beining's subsequent works begin to show an increasing dissatisfaction with old forms. Backroads (1979) at least superficially is the opposite of "N.Y.C. Landscape"--nature imagery in the new piece is fashioned through and through with the tones of despair of the earlier work: "to summarize:/the dead". As language buckles under the strain of a wounded consciousness formerly condemned to reveal itself through words, they are now distrusted, even physically, as a vehicle of damage and deception. The poet shows a new concern with the negative spaces between words, phrases, and the larger syntactic elements through using page spacing more creatively than before. Graphic (visual) design is taken up not with the playfulness and liberation which so often accompany the discovery by literary artists of this medium, but more as a last resort; the artist is being driven out of his prior home in verbal language, just as he had been driven out of nature, representation, and safety earlier. His later collages will substantiate this.

Bound together in the same volume with Backroads is Artism, in which some of the above preoccupations with the inadequacy of verbal representation are again presented. Forty-five "speculums," each accompanied by an "exhibition," attempt a cross-referencing through spatial, graphic juxtapositionings. Each speculum is set in italics, whereas each exhibition is set in medium text, emphasizing the notion of difference. The numerical and graphic presentation embody order but of a hysterical nature; permeating all is an ominous sense of fear, so powerful that it forces this ritualistic ordering as a mode of staving off total collapse. Hysteria, the classic defense against painful memory, erects symptoms of avoidance; it is a disease of (not) remembering, of strategic forgetting through diversions of the attention, anaesthetizing of the nerves' biology. In Artism the term "exhibitions" suggests that art as exhibition (ripped out of a lived social experience and presented for distanced appreciation, sale, and critical assessment) participates in a generalized guilt; that is, "exhibitions" (or "exhibits") are also used at trials in order to establish guilt. The art work is turned against itself; through its qualities as exhibition piece, it accuses and condemns itself, uncovering a flaw or failure at its core. This flaw or crime is that of representation or reflection, a mode no longer viable.

Although the development is not a strict one from verbal to visual imageries, a general pattern is emerging, as Beining's next book moves more boldly into the non-verbal graphic. Ogden Diary uses illustrations by Tom Sutton; these are rough, gritty-looking, mostly contrasty graphics which "illustrate" or interpret the verbal part of the book. There is a cast of characters but chiefly one voice, that of Ogden. He works with the one who "afixes" the words or pasts them into the design. "I a partner of his/ death now afix/ the words." Chunks of text pasted up at odd, twisted angles visually cut language loose from the rigid conventions of publishing, for the purpose of furthering the book's ends. Loose, semi-associational syntax delivers a charge of impending, possibly actual insanity. Freudian cellar imagery places this Beckett-like character in the realm of the dead, the unknown, the repressed which has come home to haunt the host. Ogden later slips in and out of consciousness in a hospital. Beining will return to Ogden in the ending poems in The Raw-Robed Few (1982), here using the character more in a Berryman way.

A more cosmological order of imagery appears in Beining's next book, A New Boundary and Other Pieces (1980), whose major focus as with the earlier work is the dissolution of prior codes of meaning. The violence of the city, death within dreams, drug-induced psychotic states, and the cannibalism of time consuming its own creatures all appear in the opening pieces. "Preambles" spreads out magesterially across the page in a classic surrealist gambit to crack open the choking syntax of power and control: "rain clouds/ soak up the uneven/ towel of sunset"; "the moon discs/ in boilerroom of/ stars"; "the endless garden pauses outside"; "the river lung darkens/ the city/ with its palpitations of/ neon chorus"; "lips as incarnation of a rose/ say it is time/ to invent a different beginning". However, in spite of the poet's fine lyrical gift, exacerbated by it in fact, there will be no different beginning. Beauty, the seasons, sexual intimacy--all the traditional non-spiritual solutions are tried. Renovation fails.

This failure, as I have indicated, powers Beining's best work and goes a long way towards accounting for some of its difficulty. It is not, however, his exclusive concern. Byways in fact are successfully explored, but they are eddies in the main current. One such byway is Small Sessions of the Inner Spirit (1980), nine short stanzas hand-printed and bound in a limited edition. As with A Bicentennial Piece of Mind, Small Sessions reveals in its physical properties the fuller meaning of the work. The book is tiny; it takes immateriality as a theme: "solid light between/ branches/ wrinkles up before/ entering the chant." Still, there is evidence of discord: "the sphere disconnected/ inside the choking apple." The text is printed against a web-like, green, patterned background on a fold-out sheet bound in dark green rice paper suggestive of nature's strength, an eastern nature mysticism tempered with an awareness of flaw and error. Similarly, Stoma 1322 (1984) consists of three-line stanzas in the minimal mode of Japanese haiku. Nature imagery presents a pattern of the seasons in this piece. One last byway I would mention is Waiting for the Soothsayer (1982), in which a mythological/ primitive escape hatch is sought. Adding tension to the structural organization, each of the 15 sections is accompanied by a subsection entitled "notes on notes", as if to indicate a self- conscious process of reflexivity at work. Indeed, any contemporary version of primitivism must include some recognition of such reflexivity, and precisely this condition shuts down the escape hatch. The soothsayer will never appear and the book constitutes a process of endless waiting.

Mystical consciousness is further explored in The Raw- Robed Few, written during a one-month period. Descriptive titles for poems chart states in Odgen's development, which is an anti-development; the changes are not cumulative or patterned. The raw-robed-few series is more meditative or contemplative musings and abstractions, as in "the ladder of self." These poems lack the compelling force of Beining's best work and must be read, as should those just mentioned, within the context of that work, in which case they become the vain attempt to blink the sterner realities of a crumbling and disappearing order of representation.

This awareness, as I have tried to show, has lead the artist in a series of graphic steps away from language to the negative spaces of the page and eventually into non-verbal imageries. Set of 4 Postcards (1984) comprises postcard-sized black-and-white collages incorporating verbal and visual imagery. Machine parts, human figures both dressed and nude, line-drawing designs, areas of texture, and sculpture fragments coalesce and swirl across the surface. The art remains figural but for the purpose of emphasizing fragmentation, dissolution, explosion, violent confrontation of the human body as a desiring machine at war with the inorganic order of things of which it is now but a subsidiary function. These elements (and other, similar ones) can be seen in the many collages Beining has published in literary magazines over the last few years. Cut off structurally from the centralized production and distribution of the publishing industry, Beining's mature work returns the body to itself through its radical intransitivity, an assertion of itself as different, not exchangeable, a locus for violence and mortality. Hence the artist's disappearance.

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