“He Did Not Ring My Head Like a Bell”: Reviewing Geoffrey Farmer

Kathy Acker rang my head like a bell.

It happened in the Spring of 1990, while she was reading out loud, a passage to our class from Gertrude Stein’s 1914 book Tender Buttons.

…from the press release.

Geoffrey Farmer did not quite ring my head like a bell.

On a rainy night in the autumn of 2014, I went alone to the opening of Cut nothing/cut parts/cut the whole/cut the order of time (Casey Kaplan, October 30-December 20). Three photographs of traditional musicians from around the world hung mysteriously and spaciously in the first chamber along with a seemingly silent speaker. All three held an instrument I can’t quite name in traditional costumes of countries, I can only guess. Two of them blew silent horns, the third held her fretted instrument with a soundless delight.

In the following room, atop a huge circular plinth, stood hundreds of cut-outs of ancient statues and sculptures from old art-history textbooks, small to large from the edge to the center, all facing out, each ingeniously propped: Etruscan and Egyptian, Nubian and Sumatran, Greek and Incan, Lombard saints and Swabian angels. Unless your are an expert, the names of disappeared civilizations are are only exotic poems, their relics curiosities.

In the third room, weird and often delightful photographs, battlefields and butterflies, celebrities and glaciers, slide-showed to the sounds of random playful crackles, rattles, rustles, and dings, like something off an old sound-effects record.

   I had just read it myself and thought little of it. In fact I clearly remember not liking it.

The book is comprised of three parts: Objects, Food and Rooms. I didn’t understand what any of the passages had to do with any of the subjects that they were listed under. When Kathy read, she did so simply, without sentiment and with a New York accent that delivered the words with matter-of-factness.

She was sitting at the end of a long conference table at the San Francisco Art Institute, and I was with half of the class, looking out through the window at Alcatraz, our backs facing the wall with the then entombed painting, The Rose (1958-1966) by Jay Defeo.

If you know who Kathy Acker is (punk feminist, experimental mistress, a surging charismatic underground force of the 1980s); and if you know who Gertrude Stein is (modernist feminist, experimental mistress, a surging charismatic force of the 1920s), both lovers of ladies, you’ll know that the confluence of the two is a historic moment.

The Rose is a painting by a woman who died with her greatest work forgotten behind a wall. That it is entombed while the artist looks at Alcatraz, the notorious high-security prison, listening to one feminist icon read another, is not lost on me.

But even if you don’t know Kathy Acker or Gertrude Stein or Jay Defeo, or that Alcatraz is a prison, then you have only the artist’s story to tie them together, the sound and shape of those words.

Even without knowledge of every name, image, and sound employed by Geoffrey Farmer, I can sense that all these references are not random. The connections mysterious but still intuited, they are meaningful even if often indecipherable. Some subtle truth unites them.

The artist himself is another reference. Do you know his work? Will you feel more knowledgeable if I tell you what museum’s he’s shown at? What important international exhibitions? His previous work or his perceived significance? The mystery of him here is the mystery of his work. On that press release, his biography reads only as “Geoffrey Farmer born 1967”.

I lean into his press release (and another stapled hand-out called “In it amongst other things” and dated “As of October 30th, 2014”) because these bits of literature are as much a part as the rest of the displayed artworks.

We have only what he tells us and what we can gather for ourselves, but it’s enough.

Kathy read:

“The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.”

Then the sound of a bell.

Words and syntax contain a deeper meaning than their definitions clearly denote. Even when words strung-together sound like nonsense, we can make their meaning as we wish through sound and association. Gertrude Stein only comes to mean something, anything, to the artist only because he hears it. Sounds like music are abstract but they make us feel, so can words and here perhaps so can pictures.

For Geoffrey Farmer, sounds and images and words can all surpass literal meaning and carry the forking paths of poetic possibility, the unstable web of meaning that can be connotative and personal, each new connection an epiphany. Like music, you don’t have to read treble clefs or eighth notes or play an instrument or compose yourself to let it affect you. Even the most astute practitioners forget themselves and just let the thrashing, unstable beauty wash over them.

Farmer’s is not the hard, head clang of the revolution fought by Kathy and Gertrude, but it doesn’t have to be war all the time either. Their necessary struggle has too many casualties. “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls…” The gentility of Geoffrey Farmer rings more truly like a whispering breeze through wind chimes, a church-bell’s tolling faraway on the other side of a thick morning curtain when you have only to pull your lover close and go back to sleep.

“The care in which the the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong…”

I’m thinking about this now in Los Angeles, while I look out at the rainless day from the rectangular windows of my living room.

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