WORDS ARE ELVES: The Genius of Jean Genet’s WordsTransformed Into Powerful Coded Visual Language
Review by Douglas P. Clement
In his debut novel, “Our Lady of the Flowers,” the French writer Jean Genet employs formal, elegant language to draw readers into the world of a drag queen, Divine, her pimp and other rough characters who navigate a demimonde in which eroticism and sexuality are exalted in the way the virtuous value chastity and piety. Genet’s transvaluation extends even to betrayal and murder.
Jean-Paul Sartre assessed the genius of Genet in his book, “Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr,” inspired largely by the “cold fire” of “Our Lady,” accomplished writing harnessed for a tale celebrating ecstasy and death.
Genet’s writing and Sartre’s interpretation of it are principal inspirations for philosophy-student-turned-artist David Hutchinson in his exhibit running through Nov. 1 at The Lionheart Gallery in Pound Ridge, N.Y., entitled Words Are Elves. Let’s leave the title aside for a moment to focus on what the artist does and why the result packs the power of an unforgettable literary work—as if it were abstracted into pure essence.
Citing the centuries-long tradition of Christian painters using coded visual language to present in transformative fashion often horrific stories, Hutchinson explains, “A large part of the body of my work has been working with the texts and life of Jean Genet to examine how the nature of formalism can absorb and subsume questionable morality by willfully re-presenting the material in a different artistic vocabulary.”
Christian art used
signifiers that were understood in historical context, if not now, and Genet
used mastery of language and narrative to ennoble—or at least raise doubts
about the depravity of—criminal and amoral behavior. Movies, to cite a
simplistic contemporary example, summon cinematic tools of distortion to leave
us feeling sympathetic to characters we
would loathe if encountered in real life.
David Hutchinson’s transmutation of his subject matter—in this case words by and about Genet—registers at the highest level of the art of warping content with presentation.
His unusual alchemy channels the brilliance of Genet in both its attempt to grasp at what lies behind the curtain of uncertainty (oppressively present via sex and death) and its ability to construct, upon a foundation of formalism, work that is at once abstract and narrative, obsessive and simplistic, sophisticated and trafficking in corruption (in this case the maker’s ability to use a form of communication to emphasize the untrustworthy elasticity of communication).
In one vein of work in Words are Elves, Hutchinson transcribes original texts in layers and layers of overwriting, emphasizing a fidelity to form, arrangement and technique over content. Genet’s obituary in The New York Times, for example, appears as a series of six intersecting constellation-like blossoms; “Our Lady of the Flowers”?
In larger images that form the main body of work in the exhibit, the artist transforms written language into coded visual language through the use of color “translations.” Each block of color is a visual signifier for a letter: a = aquamarine, b = blue, c = crimson, d = dove gray, e = emerald, and so forth. Color blocks in these larger works connote phrases from Sartre’s “Saint Genet,” such as “The Sun Begets a Shadow,” while the backgrounds are transcriptions of Sartre’s chapter in “Saint Genet” about the writer’s aesthetics, entitled “A Strange Hell of Beauty.”
“In previous works I have tended to keep these two practices of ‘translation’ and ‘transcription’ separate,” Hutchinson notes in the gallery’s press release. “In this exhibition I combine these two aesthetic approaches for the first time.”
The result is inscrutable, mesmerizing, and finally, like Genet’s writing, a moveable feast of aesthetic wonderment.
Now for the title, Words Are Elves. In “A Strange Hell of Beauty,” Sartre uses the phrase “words are elves.” In full the sentence says, “Words are elves; since childhood Genet has been in the habit of metamorphosing himself with a sharp stroke of their black wands.”
In this strong, revelatory exhibit at The Lionheart Gallery, David Hutchinson brilliantly metamorphoses literary texts into artwork that’s nothing short of magical.
The exhibit at the gallery at 27 Westchester Avenue in Pound Ridge, N.Y., remains on view through November 1, 2016. Call The Lionheart Gallery at 914.764.8689 and see the website at http://www.thelionheartgallery.com for hours, directions and more information.