The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2021

All Issues
APRIL 2021 Issue
Art Books

Antonia Contro and Elizabeth Bradfield’s Theorem

The words are spare, surrounded by white space, and the artwork works in tandem with the text to build a world that highlights both aloneness and interdependence.

Antonia Contro and Elizabeth Bradfield
Printed with Canaletto Grana Grossa Bianco on an Indigo 12000HD and a Vandercook Letterpress with embossed, silkscreened, and foil stamped covers with embedded magnets.
Candor Arts, 2020

TheoremAntonia Contro and Elizabeth Bradfield
Poetry Northwest Editions, 2020

This past spring, a book arrived at my house enfolded in deep red cloth, slightly larger than a vinyl LP, wrapping held snugly by embedded magnets. Inside the book’s elegantly embossed cover are alternating pages of text and visual art, presenting what feels like a back-and-forth exchange. One mode speaks; the other mode responds. In Theorem, a limited-edition artist book co-authored by Antonia Contro and Elizabeth Bradfield, the words are spare, surrounded by white space, and the artwork—a range of delicate line drawings, colorful paintings, and layered collages—works in tandem with the text to build a world that highlights both aloneness and interdependence. Contro’s artwork never feels like an illustration of Bradfield’s text, and the text never feels like an explanation of the artwork, and yet the two modes illuminate and clarify a shared intellectual and emotional journey—coy, in some ways, but not impervious.

As the title suggests, Theorem engages with some scientific concepts. But if you’re like me and the mere mention of mathematics makes you feel slightly nauseous, be not afraid: The real heart of Theorem is the way it wrestles with autobiography and the ethics of storytelling, using the tidy, measurable aspects of geometry as a counterpoint for the chaotic, overwhelming details of lived experience. The decreasing page size encourages the reader to come, gradually, closer, lending the book a sense of escalating intimacy.

"Reading Theorem" illustration by Gabrielle Bates for this review.

Theorem is, to quote from Bradfield’s text, “a story of a secret. Of secrets. Of becoming from and alongside them.” But while the book is “of” a story, it does not offer a story itself. Its argument, according to the co-authored afterword, is born from the desire to speak around a specific event, to protect the privacy of the people impacted, and to make room for a degree of not-knowing on the part of the tellers. As the co-authors make clear, their ambition is to impart the significance of trauma without divulging its details. On the phone, Bradfield expressed worry that people would be frustrated by this informational withholding; not wanting any reader to leave the book feeling betrayed by the text’s lack of particulars, though she also wasn’t willing to give more details. “We all have things in our lives that shape us that we don’t want to be a part of our public story,” she told me.

Bradfield and Contro worked on Theorem over the course of several years, and their measured conversation, conducted across time and geographical distance (from Cape Cod to Chicago) strikes a particular chord in this virus-haunted era of isolation. The conversation between the collaborators blends into a multivalent monologue. Contro’s visual art pieces emerged first, then Bradfield’s words came later, but the way the pieces alternate, the words often prefigure the image that follows. For example, the line “something had begun to flow through my body’s passages” precedes a delicately rendered drawing of two arms cut off just above the elbow, with vein-like wisps emerging from where the flesh ends.

For both Contro and Bradfield, the experience of working together felt markedly different from the experience of working alone. As Contro told me, “Making work is a really private act. Making work public is both stimulating and mortifying. When Liz sent me her writing, it felt to me like an offering of vulnerability. Stakes were high. This was a very serious confessional piece of work that we would share.” Bradfield echoed this sentiment, “Writing in response to Antonia’s images and having the images and the text be present with each other opened up a different way of writing for me. I’ve always been terrified by brief poems and the audacity of brief poems, but Antonia’s images emboldened me in that direction.” Two of the questions central to their making, they tell me, were: “How much can we take out?” and “How spare can it be?”

This past autumn, Theorem came to me a second time, now as a trade edition, smaller, without the luxurious cloth wrapping and Vandercook Letterpress texture, but still buzzing with so much of what enchanted me about the original, limited-edition version: splashes of rich color, delicately drawn lines, the visual texture of paint. In the original edition, the pages physically winnow in size as Theorem progresses, growing smaller and smaller; in the trade edition this winnowing is evoked by an increasingly wide black border. It is all there, again, in my hands, changed, but familiar.

In non-pandemic times, I would take a book I was reviewing out on a date, to a cozy bar or a candlelit restaurant where we could get to know each other over Black Manhattans or rosewater rice pudding. But just as the pandemic has encouraged many of us to make sacrifices in regards to human romance, it has forced me to be creative when it comes to seducing books. On an afternoon in early January, I bundle up and take the trade edition of Theorem out with me. I walk until I reach the steps of a closed museum, stop, and flip the pages with my gloved fingers, breathing cold air through the layers of my mask. I read “Flowing into and through each other. / Forging a unique amalgam,” and then I look up at the leafless katsura trees. These days I feel in spareness—more acutely than ever before—a generosity. For my mind so quickly overwhelmed and my attentions stretched thin across Zoom screens, push notifications, and vaccine updates, minimalist pieces of text and image feel kind, allowing me to engage as much as I can, piece by piece.

Readers who feel entitled to all the narrative particulars may be frustrated by Theorem, which holds authorial privacy as a sacred, nonnegotiable core, but those who embrace the book on its own terms—as meditation, not story—will be rewarded. Contro and Bradfield have done the hard work of whittling down and focusing the frame for us, the way winter has stripped these trees along the edge of this closed museum, making it possible to see the sky beyond them.


Gabrielle Bates

Gabrielle Bates works for Open Books: A Poem Emporium and co-hosts the podcast The Poet Salon. Her work appears in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and BAX: Best American Experimental Writing.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2021

All Issues