China, Chicago, and the Exigencies of Google Chat

Richard Vine
New China New Art
(Prestel, 2011)

In contrasting individuality with society, does art support or subvert the status quo? This is one of the main themes in this sumptuous overview.

Critic Richard Vine is an expert on contemporary Chinese art and he compares much of it to Delacroix’s “Lady Liberty Leading the People.” Indeed, the most famous of contemporary Chinese artists, Ai Weiwei, has come to the fore precisely because of his confrontations with authority.

Many of Vine’s interpretations of China’s art point to an iconoclastic core. Artists tackle issues such as land reclamation, corruption, and pollution. Some use humor while others use irony to suspend belief.

Xu Zhen’s sculptures suspend people appearing to fall, which being supported by hidden braces, suspend belief literally. He explores “the issue of reality versus representation, of contrasting truth as (or if) it exists versus the ‘truth’ as it is reported by those with vested interests.”

Vine guides us through the conceptual underpinnings of hundreds of works of art. In considering a red banner of pseudo-language by Xu Bing he notes with usual incision: “the trick … deftly exposes the unreliability of much political discourse, while simultaneously proposing a new, more sophisticated rapport between art and the public.”

Continuing, Vine writes that Bing’s art “clearly suggests a society experiencing a profound religious, political, and epistemological disconnect.”

This book is obligatory for getting a grip on a huge, dynamic, essential scene.



Patricia Smith
Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah
(Coffee House Press, 2012)

Welcome to a place of hopes and dreams punctured with rawness and pain. Patricia Smith’s autobiographical epic is cinematic in scale yet music box in intimacy.

Smith portrays the Great Migration from a personal vantage. Using her mother’s pilgrimage from Alabama to Chicago as a prism, she refracts ancestral actors and episodes, exacting gemlike brilliance.

The diamond-in-the-rough characters sparkle. Each poem feels narrated, as if the poet is channeling the inner thoughts of her players. Full of spunk and vinegary vernacular, the passages crinkle with acrid detail.

Smith has a terrific ear but she takes the monologues further. She turns speech into poetry. Using triple double-adjective descriptions, for instance, her father sums up her mother: “She’s a gum-crackin’, bowlegged, church-decent gal.”

In “Thief of Tongues,” Smith sifts through her mother’s Southernisms to look for her heritage. “Her rap is peppered with ain’t gots and I done beens / and he be’s.” Smith wants the lost language back.

As the arc completes, Smith includes the new conventions that were created by the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north. “Motown Crowd” is a crown of 15 sonnets. In this ending, new language rises beside a new belief system.

Looking for soul in the music, for more than “a voice like sugar air,” Smith compresses culture ’til it peals like crystal—like singing light.



Ariana Reines
Coeur de Lion
(Fence Books, 2011)

Written in short, airy lines, like e-mailed whispers in a library of self-portraits, Ariana Reines reins you in. Prurience and providence align in this epistolary poem of love found and lost.

Using a talky New York School style, dropping friends’ names and breezing on bravely, Reines is refreshingly direct in her role as a broke, heartbroken rebel. Her vulnerability hides behind a veneer of solipsism.

Feelings are laid bare. “Sometimes you whimper / and moan and pretend to cry, / you say, Oh Ari, you make me feel / So many emotions.” This inarticulation can be intoxicatingly real. Especially when it serves as a foil for a brainy romantic who talks about “set theory” and speaks French.

Within a contemporary context of understatement, Reines follows Pound’s dictum to make it new. Seeing a tequila bottle on the table she takes it, echoing Williams’s famous plums. On a par with an ancient Chinese empress she writes: “That fancy quince / Paste, olives too, how could I forget. / The moon was very big.”

Profundity wafts out of natural expressions, like in this little epiphany: “I don’t know what I think tonite / But I know where I am / This second lost without you.”

When done right, the personal can represent the universal. In this soap opera cum aria, Genet meets Dafoe just as Kathy Acker steps in.


Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

JEFFREY CYPHERS WRIGHT is a poet, publisher, critic, collage artist and eco-activist involved in the community gardens of New York City.


APR 2012

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