July 2, 2006

Surrounded by words just beyond our grasp

It was a regulation traffic sign, but customized: After “DRIVE SLOW” someone had carefully added “LY.” It was a reminder, just like when the check-out line is marked “10 items or fewer,” that I’m living in a city where people are serious about words. Even, it seems, in pictures.

I recently talked with Pelle Cass, a photographer who combines text and visual images. Cass, whose first name is pronounced “pell,” has work in the permanent collections of the Fogg Art Museum, the Addison Gallery of Art in Andover, the Polaroid Collection, and the deCordova Museum in Lincoln, and available at Gallery Kafayas in the South End. Cass himself lives in a world of words and images. In fact, his wife, Margaret Holmes, is a writer whose work was recently nominated for inclusion in an anthology of Best New American Voices. Though Cass uses text from a variety of sources, he sees poetry and photography as natural partners.

“Photography is like a lyric poem,” says Cass. “I’m trying to show a little the way I think, the way I feel. To me, poems work in the same way a picture does--combining a bunch of things to see if you can come up with something that affects someone.”

The poetry references in Cass’s photographs often come from Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, William Carlos Williams, and Jorie Graham. In one, Koch’s “Sleeping With Women” becomes a sensual mass of deep curls. In another, Williams’s “This is just to say / I have eaten / the plums that were in / the icebox” is written on a pear.

In most of his photographs you can’t read the words. Words are seen backwards on a vase, or cut, jumbled, twisted into landscapes. The effect reminds me of how words, written and spoken, hurled at us every minute, sometimes blur into the wah-wah-wah of Charlie Brown’s teacher in the Peanuts comic strip. Cass’s photographs give the viewer a place where the words lie at a foggy remove just beyond comprehension. It can create a little island of quiet Cass describes as “language dissolving into pre-verbal experience” the way the sounds of poetry sometimes do.

Even when the words are legible, they are positioned in ways that make us see them differently. A headline about the capture of Saddam Hussein, “News brings anger, joy, confusion,”curls on a background of textured fabric. The letters of the word, “equality” are tossed randomly on each other. In a photograph titled, “Abstract” a few words can be read but most are frustratingly illegible on their urgent-looking page. “What I’m about to tell you means absolutely nothing,” says another that uses Cass’s own words on Mobius strips.

“I don’t feel the need to understand,” Cass says about both the text he chooses and the images that result. “I tend to like confused pictures and I try not to have any rules. There is no reason in the world that it has to make sense if it works--that’s the visual artist speaking.”

It’s the visual artist’s reminder to those of us who live in a world of words that sometimes we need a new way to experience words. We need to step back and see them, or hear them, as if for the first time, to remember their power and how they can so easily be manipulated or worn away. And how we might keep them pure.

Photographs are at www.pellecass.com.

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com. You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

My photo on the home page is by Peter Urban.
The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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