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Photo: Bob Perelman
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Not long ago I spent an afternoon visiting Francie Shaw’s studio in Mt. Airy and there I saw many wonders, including a wall of small square paintings in blue and white. Each of these paintings depicted two figures — a dinosaur and a form of human being — engaged physically with one another. They were, you could say, more drafted than painted in blue on a white ground. And each acquired a certain theatrical depth from the prominent use of shadows. It was as if the flat and picturesque world of the images on Delft tiles had been transposed into some transforming combat out of Ovid, now shown under a spotlight. And although the tradition of conversation paintings seemed to be evoked, the conversation here seemed a mysterious and silent form of mutual conversion.
Because my mind tends to read the world like a page, I started to look from left to right and top to bottom. Was evolution going backwards? Was a pre-ice-age epic unfolding? Were these strangely gendered and ungendered, anthropomorphic and animalistic, pairs engaged in agony or reunion? Was this the sexuality of pre-history or of the future? It was impossible and just plain wrong to read these paintings as a narrative, and yet each showed some moment, some tableau where a fate was being wrestled or a rescue attempted.
Francie herself has written of these images “When I started playing with the figures I was immediately intrigued with the strangeness of the size relationship. The dino is just a little bigger, but big enough to be too hard to control, small enough to grasp. That’s how I feel about my thoughts and feelings — when I can grasp them even… I really see these as an inner landscape.”
The Dutch sealed their domestic space with smooth surfaces and centered images, cool tiles squarely surrounding the uncontainability of fire and the ambiguity of thresholds. But history really happens inside a house; we haunt ourselves and grapple and emerge. Mortal beings are finite, but in play the outcome can be open-ended.
In Bob’s sequence of brief lyrics, a single voice seems to speak to an absent other. Each lyric is bracketed by silence, as printed lyrics always are. These poems have the tone of someone struck in retrospection by a visual memory, someone struggling toward an understanding of whatever it is in experience that has made the very terms of understanding possible. Preoccupied with this history under the interest of another, the lyric voice produces a train of insights that are alternately ironic, erotic, saddened, and joyful.
This isn’t the first collaboration between Francie Shaw and Bob Perelman, but there’s something that seems about to be born in these works. They speak to the struggle of collaboration and cohabitation in the confined and enabling space of the emotions.
— Susan Stewart, 2004
Susan Stewartwas born in 1952 and received a B.A. in English and Anthropology from Dickinson College, an M.A. in Poetics from Johns Hopkins University, and a Ph.D. in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of several collections of poetry, including Columbarium (University of Chicago Press, 2003) which received the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Forest (1995), which received the Literary Award of the Philadelphia Atheneum; The Hive (1987); and Yellow Stars and Ice (1981). Her collected essays on art, The Open Studio: Essays in Art and Aesthetics, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004. Her other books of criticism include Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (2002), which received both the 2002 Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism from Phi Beta Kappa and the 2004 Truman Capote Award in Literary Criticism; as well as Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation (1991); Nonsense (1989); and On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1984). She also co-translated Euripides’ Andromache with Wesley Smith, and the poetry and selected prose of the Scuola Romana painter Scipione with Brunella Antomarini, and collaborated with composer James Primosch on a song cycle commissioned by the Chicago Symphony. About her work, the poet and critic Allen Grossman has written, “Stewart has built a poetic syntax capable of conveying an utterly singular account of consciousness, by the light of which it is possible to see the structure of the human world with a new clarity and an unforseen precision, possible only in her presence and by means of her art.” Her honors include a Lila Wallace Individual Writer’s Award, two grants in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pew Fellowship for the Arts, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. Stewart taught at Temple University in Philadelphia from 1978 to 1997. She is currently Professor of English at Princeton University where she teaches the history of poetry and aesthetics.