Saturday, February 17, 2018



                                                            “…a language is always a legacy…”
                                                                                              -Ferdinand de Saussure

In his great text, Writing and Difference, in a chapter titled “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” Structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida writes:

The trace is the erasure of selfhood, of one’s own presence, and is constituted by the threat or anguish of its irremediable disappearance, of the disappearance of its disappearance.  An unerasable trace is not a trace, it is a full presence, an immobile and incorruptible substance, a son of God, a sign of Parousia and not a seed, that is, a mortal germ.

In my view, one of the difficulties of considering the artwork of eminent and long-time “West Coast” language artist, Karl Kempton, is the need of making the distinction between several styles of work included under the rubric of “visual writing.”  “The trace” is sometimes considered visual writing or visual poetry in itself.  The trace is often perceived as perplexing markings, hieroglyphics, graffiti, accidental or “found”   configurations, glyphs, “poem-objects,” spills, pictograms, smudges with anthropological import.  These striking, tenuous “cave drawings” inscribed in the murky unconscious of civilization’s evolutionary imagination encourage belief in a mystery we contemplate as the origin of life.  Inexplicable scrawls and designs, associated with writing’s visual aspects, appear to reveal a striving toward knowledge  and expression, communicating a miraculous message of existence amidst the unknown and disappearing worlds of Humankind.   “In the beginning was the Word!”  Derrida, himself, describes the trace in terms such as “a past that never has been present” and “the enigma of the Other.”  In this sort of “visual writing,” the unique outer features of writing—letters of varieties of alphabets, punctuation marks, fonts, scripts, scribbles, prehistoric shapes, sacred texts—are woven into faintly illuminating patterns and anti-patterns associated with the ever-changing and ever-shifting realities that constitute a notion of permanence.  Compositions of lines, lettering, handwriting, concentrated and diffuse scratchings that suggest such qualities as thought, ambiguity, spacing, error, growth, interaction, ideas, authenticity, chance—qualities that, in artificial and cursive form, do indeed  seem  erasable and destabilized in the “night of secret difference”— convey an unanticipated sense of Being, ontology, presence, meaning, and hope.  Erasure of the self expresses the self.  “Originary difference…contradicts origin even as it signifies it.” (Walter Brogan)  In its plainest form, writing is always encountered in the past.  And the temporality of the present always reduces writing to evidence of the self.  I would tend to consider this style of visual writing associated with the simple language trace as “visual poetry” or “vizpo.”      

However, some of these same qualities, made use of in this type of visual writing, are also found, perhaps in an altered form, in another type of visual writing that might more likely be described as “semiology.”  It’s semiology that is more appropriately described as an “unerasable trace,” a “full presence” which is “immobile” and “incorruptible.”  This type of visual writing is separate from the self. 

Just in the same way that he uses such phrases as “the objectivity of structure,” Derrida writes:

It is the deepening of a work…of excavation…which…brings to light…the “structural a prioris”…of genesis itself.

This type of visual poetry reveals itself in some of the qualities that relate to systems and wholes, such as simplification, symmetry, completion, order, stability, tensile strength, inclusiveness, generality, solidity, balance,  codes, genetics.  This type of visual writing is more interested in structure.            

In a somewhat incidental manner, talking about linguistics as opposed to speech, in the Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure states that “linguistic signs are, so to speak, tangible.”  He goes on to say that linguistic signs are not simply abstractions.  In saying this, in my view, he is demonstrating an awareness in the future of the first type of visual writing that I described—visual poetry or vizpo—with its awkward fledgling splashes, inexplicable stains of actuality, recurring forms, indefinite tangibility, a tangibility that is ambiguous but not fake, metaphysical but at times seemingly palpable—the “matinal trace,” at the same time both fleeting and eternal.    

Saussure postulates, along with, much later, Roland Barthes, that “language, as we have just seen, is a social institution.”  Barthes, in his tract Elements of Semiology, terms language “a social contract” and “a system of signs.”  Saussure describes language as “a collective phenomenon” and “a special type of system,” “something that is within each individual but is none the less common to all.”   

It is therefore possible to conceive a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life.  It would form part of social psychology and hence of general psychology.  We shall call it “semiology” (from the Greek semeion, “sign”).   

Karl Kempton’s visual work relates not to the “tangibility” of the inexplicable momentary appearance of “writing” and language-as-Being but rather to the intangibility of constant archetypal linguistic systems and  structures interacting with one another and of structure as such.  I should insert that Saussure wrote these words in Europe during the early 1900s, at a time that the field of linguistics had yet to be officially invented but, also, at a time of great upheaval in art and literature—with the appearance of Cubism, collage, Dadaism, Suprematism and others often approaching visual writing. 


In 1992, Light and Dust Books publisher Karl Young, along with Atticus Books published a selection, from a larger group, of Kempton’s artworks titled Rune:  A Survey.  This unpaginated perfect bound codex holds up well as time progresses.  It contains remarkable painstaking intricate artworks done by Kempton on a typewriter, made from letters, periods, dashes, parentheses, etc.   At that time Kempton published Kaldron magazine, in tabloid format, one of the most extensive and well-done publications among many others.  Many of his own early artworks consist of designs made from x’s and o’s.  Many of these types of publications at that time published an exciting array of neo-Dadaist artworks, collages, Xerox artwork, “typewriter art,” stamp art, Surrealism, mail art, along with the beginnings of visual writing.  Kempton’s alphabet-based mandalas, rosettes, arabesques, knots, minimalist Buddhist and Futurist patterns were in the forefront.  The title of Rune references first and second century Germanic and Keltic written language, the logocentrism of which conjures origins of nations, cities, courts of justice, specialness.  The word “rune” has etymological meanings associated with "mystery," "secret," "secret writing," or sometimes "miracle."  According to Kempton, he felt the attraction of these crude language characters early, with their symbolic meanings and attachment to magical chants and rites.  The beauty and meticulous tessellations of Kempton’s works reach toward metaphysical dimensions indicated in prototypical cultures.   Their complicated isometrics often create the effects of trompe l’oeil, similar to some works of Miekal And.  Also Kempton’s rigorously proportionate mandalas, mosaics and polygons are similar to Persian and Islamic work, with names such as “The Flowers of Life,”  that are considered in their cultures as “blueprints of the universe” and “symbols of the cosmos.”  These works are also similar to Native American medallions portraying the west wind, beginnings, “the four directions,” and dream worlds.  The psychologist, Carl Jung, famous for his idea of collective consciousness,  also did some of this type of artwork, recorded in a collection titled The Red Book, with bizarre images of chambers and structures, sometimes containing hideous snakes and monsters, side by side with disconnected handwritten texts.  Another of Kempton’s similar works at this time, titled 4 plus 3, was published by Post-Neo publications in Australia.           

Of Kempton’s works, his friend Karl Young writes:

But for Kempton (and for most of us) this clarity is most important when used to present themes such as environmental action, sense of self or loss of same, natural communion, openness to spiritual revelation, the need for personal and communal responsibility.  These are all things that have become confused and degraded in recent years.  Few poets or artists have done as good a job of re-presenting these ideas, freed from cliché and cleaned of the junk that has accumulated around them, presenting them in the clearest most honest and most appropriate manner.

The pursuit of visual writing, often considered a new art form, the discovery of it, the difficult articulation of consciousness, places and faces, bill paying, death, emotion, nature, families, presence, worlds, the planet, barrooms, politics, protests, the rise and fall of the Xerox machine has led down a lonely and not particularly rewarding path, with the future extremely clouded and everything yet hanging in the balance.  It’s remarkable the way that the artists and writers in the early-gathering group have remained loosely together.  Jim Leftwich, editor of Juxta, John Bennett, editor of Lost and Found Times, Lloyd Dunn, editor of PhotoStatic, Kempton, editor of Kaldron.  Bob Grumman (his artworks published in Scientific American), Karl Young, Carlos Luis, “Blaster” Al Ackerman gone.  Would this movement be portrayed by these artists themselves as a matter of interacting signs and structures or of the intrusion into a small oxygen-breathing world of the unknown presences of all-but-invisible footprints and semantic, “tangible” handprints of eager, mouthy U.S. Beings-always-in-Question?  Karl Young, in his 1992 Rune introduction, warns not to put limitations on responses to Kempton’s works, in which

…people have seen aerial views of cities, Kachina dolls, space ships and stations (children and teenagers have launched into expansive explications of space images), bead work, clothing, frameworks of skyscrapers, mandalas, video games charts of railroad tracks, sketches for gardens and so on. 


It’s apparently easier to reach the “golden ratio” in geometric artworks and medallions than in the  geometries of modern societies.  What about the buried and demolished realities of our everyday lives?   What about politicians on a pretext taking money for themselves intended for society as a whole?  Karl Young is right in scolding artists and the world in general with moralistic warnings.  The signs, systems, infrastructure, totalities that we attempt to portray and build cannot succeed in their “transcendental intentionalities,” conceptualities, telos without specific characteristics and qualities infused into them.  Our guiding signs cannot remain vacuous Oedipal blazes and intact polar vortices pulling us along without thought.  Derrida himself criticizes structure in this manner—in phrases such as “geometry of experience” and “mathematics of phenomena” or “irreducible incompleteness” and “infinite opening.”  “What I can never understand, in a structure, is that by means of which it is not closed.”  Surprisingly placing possibility below it, Derrida states, “Every totality, every finite structure is inadequate to [truth].”  Genesis structure has no “opening” but is, rather, both always open and always closed.  Derrida also  emphasizes “understanding” as a necessary quality of signs and structure.

In his book Proust and Signs, Gilles Deleuze goes further, attributing the success of signs and structures to “love.”

Love’s signs are not like the signs of worldliness, they are not empty signs, standing for thought and action.  They are deceptive signs that can be addressed to us only by concealing what they express, the origin of unknown worlds, of unknown actions and thoughts that give them meaning.

Such types of signs are “deceptive” in that they are fathomed only in an effort of our perception.  The  very existence of structure relies upon love, truth, understanding, morality.  The signs we follow cannot be homogeneous or locked out from meaning.  The signs that Deleuze is talking about in Proust are the emotional “openings” that are prompted from momentary experiences from entities such as a coffee cake (“madeleine”) or dislocated cobblestones, associations that resonate with the recurring threads of a singular life.  The quality that structure gains from Proust is a nostalgic orientation toward memory and knowing that memory is also structural.  In his “search for lost time,” Proust discovers that there is no time regained without memory, truth and love.  Writes Deleuze, “The search for lost time is in fact a search for truth.”  But this is an essential not a melodramatic truth, a truth of reality and of  legibility (visual writing).  Deleuze, already making reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, concludes that memory is learning.  In this same way, the “rights of Man” are structural and the rights of women also.  It is also a structural orientation that allows Foucault to make the title of one of his books, from Semiotext(e), The Politics of Truth.  His meaning is that no matter the intensity  of its partisanship, politics must remain always collated as truth.  But, as Karl Young implies, structure has to do with many things:  cooking, architecture, sex, health, space ships.  This is the reason that Kempton’s artworks from the 1990s and sometimes earlier do not seem to become outdated.  They are already “time regained” in the truth of their structure, not by virtue of a cogency but by virtue of their substantiveness and, in a certain way, emptiness (emptiness of blight and troubles).  In this way, we see that the autonomous erasable trace  itself and the unerasable genesis trace are alike.  It might be emphasized that this discussion is as much about creating various structures and qualities as detecting  and articulating them.  And let us not forget the idea of de-construction:  of such superfluous structures as Death, falseness, Oedipus, covetousness, Time, disease, repression.  Proustian deconstruction and structure is reflected in its sense of abandonment.



In his 2015 collection of conceptual artworks, haiku-style and, loosely, tanka-style poems, Poems About Something and Nothing, Kempton examines the borders of life and death, evil and good, being and non-being.  Here is one of the poems from the collection:

for this Love
risk everything
to receive Nothing

This type of poetry is derived from Buddhism and Bhakti Yoga.  It is also similar to the trace.  It carries a structural sense of knowledge and teaching but, at the same time, is fragile and erasable.  It represents the self in the most self-effacing brevity of terms.  The mathematical designs and mandalas mixed in with the textual haiku-like poems reinforce a sense of an indestructible, unknowable star-like Other.  And yet, in the context of daily human struggles and experience, on what grounds are we able to recognize these works of perfection and unity as “realism”?  The entire Structualist project is, thus, perhaps summed up as an attempt to view the world not as inanimate substance, the repetitious motion of inviolable laws, codes and principles but as an ambiguous mediated  dimensional subjectivity and diversity of qualities of living Being.  Visual writing is the pursuit of presence rather than of an absolute (that is, meaningless) philosophy or spirituality.  In anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari write

If in fact there are structures, they do not exist in the mind….Structures exist in the immediate impossible real.  As Witold Grombrowicz says, the structuralists “search for their structures in culture.  As for myself, I look for them in the immediate reality.  My way of seeing things was in direct relationship to the events of the times:  Hitlerism, Stalinism, fascism.”

On a global scale, new “complexes of the unconscious” containing the menacing apocalyptic monsters of infinite failure and dubious arbitrary rights-and-wrongs are the “immediate realities” of politics and criticism very aptly represented in abundant alphabetical and environmental texts reconstructing and reterritorializing the lasting place of humanity.             

In Kempton’s work Chewed from avantacular press (2012), the characteristics of language structure are difficult to interpret.  These works are created from photographs of “Bubble Gum Alley,”

….a narrow brick walled walkway between two stores, connect[ing] a small street surface parking lot to Higuera, a San Luis Obispo one-way downtown street.  Gum on brick first appeared anonymously in the 1960s….Eventually, from far and near, others came to press gum wads onto brick….

The works are presented in vivid colors like an out-of-body moment remembered or crowds at a sports stadium.  The rosettes look like photographs depicting mass destruction as much as artworks portraying an ordered universe or mystical “Flowers of Life.”  White space is integrated into the artworks.  Isometrics still portray three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface (a reference to writing).  In both the quality of these designs and attractiveness of materials, the artworks seem to strive harder than previously for color and diversity.  But, at times, these works (of Kempton’s) are naively enclosed within the muted awkward mazes of their protective non-linear geometries, in the same manner as in the earlier Runes.  They seem to pay homage to other artists, including early visual artist Agnes Martin with her cryptic horizontal lines, a virtual space reserved for only the most originary of realities.  Kempton’s  works silently fold and unfold, perhaps without our noticing, as they observe society from a decidedly low vantage.  Yet, within their symmetry, the beauty of sacred harmonies is at times strongly demonstrated.  Whether bad or good, their struggles, their failures, their signs, their systems and their structures are endlessly recycled.  Do these semiologies of nothingness, of Derrida’s “nothing,” of the Greek word “hyle” or “harsh garbage” constitute a caring feeling world of love, understanding, memory, truth and selfhood or a crumbling world of concession and repression moving backwards?  A newly revised and revived world or a world not revived but reviled, that refuses to consider its fellow beings or itself?  In Bubble Gum Alley is expressed not a presence but a temporary absence, here, perhaps, in search of a new structure and a new writing:  Out of nothing is born everything.  In a sense, visual writing is a phenomenology of existence or an expression of it.  And metalanguage is, simply, empty space.  In his excellent and perceptive visual works reflecting a world where some things exist and some things do not exist, Kempton provides sensitive unerasable Proustian memories—not of the past but of the future.    

Artworks:  1.  Karl Kempton, “r, Rune 2, 26 Voices, January Interlude”   2.  Karl Kempton, “m, Rune 10, Rose Window”   3.  Karl Kempton, from Chewed  4.  Karl Kempton, “eternal om 1” in Poems About Something and Nothing, from the eternal om series   4.  Tim Gaze, “untitled” (example of the erasable trace). 



Recent Activities and Online Publications
P.S., Forever:  Introduction and translations from French Surrealism, Big Bridge online magazine, Michael Rothenberg, editor, 2016.

March-April 2017, poetry readings:  Myopic Books, Chicago, and Woodland Pattern Book Center, Milwaukee WI (reading with Buck Downs).

September 2017, poetry readings:  Lorine Niedecker Poetry Festival Open Mic, Fort Atkinson WI, and 100,000 Poets For Change, Racine WI.

Existence and Terror, review of Michael Rothenberg’s Murder, published in Journal of Poetic Research, John Tranter, editor, 2016.

Ecologies of Diversity, published in Journal of Poetic Research, John Tranter, editor, 2018

Genesis and Resingularization, review of California Poems, Carolyn Welch, Moon Willow Press, and The Three Ecologies, Felix Guattari, published in Eco-Fiction.Com, 2016-2017.