Arts & Culture » Visual Art

One-man art posse

As children, we met the world, wanted it all and tried to digest it in tiny increments of curiosity: earthworms, dry ice, peeling scabs, the sawed-off ends of 2-by-4s, Grandma's false teeth, the sky at night.

And what about the juices and stuff that came from body openings that we stared at (and into), touched and so on? School was maybe both the place to get some answers and a source of encouragement and challenge: to try things out, to focus, to channel our endless interests. Or does this sound like someone else's utopia? Wasn't school just telling us how far we could think in any direction?

Even artists, for all of the usual talk about imagination and possibilities, are asked to specialize, to choose a discipline. Dividing up our experience of the world into pieces may be necessary to a certain understanding of it, but Ypsilanti artist-poet-designer Brian Schorn, assistant professor of art at Eastern Michigan University, has never been comfortable with limits, especially not on creativity.

Which is not to say he hasn't walked the specialty walk and talked the discipline talk. His education in the arts spans an impressive series of advanced degrees: BFA in photography (Center for Creative Studies), MFA in photography (University of Michigan), MFA in creative writing (Brown University) and MFA in design (Cranbrook Academy of Art). What might seem to be a flitting from one meadow to the next in search of the ultimate nectar is actually the munching of a Dagwood sandwich of juicy combinations.

As a student of photography, Schorn's fascination with the image led him to an involvement with poetry, then working with language led him to a sensuous take on typography, the bones of the printing process itself. As a designer he was able to bring all these aspects together in a mind-stretching range of projects. But the real key to understanding his passion for a variety of approaches lies elsewhere: in the two years of premed classes at Oakland University which preceded his artistic training.

In anatomy labs, on the dissecting table, Schorn found evidence of processes that most of us can't even imagine, of whole systems functioning independently of our will: the cardiovascular system, the nervous system, even the brain. And they fascinated, almost obsessed him. When he speaks of "human flesh, the real stuff," it's with both wonder and a hint of sadness, because mortality, entropy, the wearing away of that flesh are also part of the information that most of us have a hard time processing. "I was amazed that humans were so fragile, that at any time they could snap like twigs," he recalls.

So taking organisms apart for their secrets translated into dismantling poems and learning art techniques in order to reorganize them into brand new bodies of meaning. Anatomical systems led to language systems -- fascination with biology freed up desire. Of Schorn's six books of poetry to date, five have been self-produced in limited, handmade editions: breathtakingly delicate and strange combinations of images, words, inventive typography and design that express a longing for the physical, the mysterious and the erotic filtered through a strong sense of the fleeting nature of life.

The following poem-plus-image from his first book, The Logic of Sensation, is a stunning example of this mix:

Echinodermata

Pentagonal Pillow

Let me pack you
your mechanism
with fear-like fetish granules
all the way through until you vomit
until you perform
like some fountain squirting bladder mix
(Frothing Mucous Saliva)

You: Dehydrated
You: Buried
I tell you
You buried yourself like brittle stars
Every calcareous rod of your body
Snapped!
I creep into you like salts

O MADNESS!
Lay your face
Dig your face
Lay face down on that pentagonal pillow
& watch your own fascination come true

I can do this

Schorn's recent book of poems was published by Burning Deck, but again with his own design. The title, Strabismus, is a medical term for the visual disorder commonly known as cross-eyes or squint. In these poems, Schorn's eyes wander -- "the optic axes cannot be directed to the same object," says Webster's -- and his vision includes more in the process:

XLIII
Before I show you this, I want you to
show me that.
After an event such as this, the color of our nerves shall
shift, bearing gifts wrapped in blue
paper. But first, tear out the bloodshed
I see
in your pistol-green eyes.

Some of his books' effects depend on the visual interplay of poetic writings with illustrations from zoology, embryology and anthropology texts. Yet these are a mild surprise, indeed, when compared with the full-scale renovation of traditional book space that Schorn undertakes in 12 Lessons in Plant Biology. In what can only be called sculpture, he guts a hardcover book to its core, retitles it and replaces its innards (like some wistful bibliographic autopsy or literary reverse-urban renewal) with dirt, sticks and an entirely rethought version of pages. Each of the book's 12 chapters can be read by turning a word-coated twig on its metal rod spine.

There's a reminder here about the bottom line of wood -- in book technology -- and the earth where it grows. And the structural relationship of support to surface is emphasized so that words (and human language in general) are seen as entirely dependent upon a whole ecological edifice.

Although death seems to haunt Schorn's work, or at least our collective awareness of it as the end of the history of all things, the heat of desire and the light of humor are here as well. In a brilliant series of variations on the letter "A," a typographical design project which has brought him international attention, Schorn lets it all hang out. Making normally unnoticed letters, almost abstract in their personalities, into such flagrantly physical, hilariously surreal, flirtatious presences on the page is an exercise in design moxie (three examples appear in the layout of this story). The German newspaper Die Zeit, from Hamburg, recently printed a set of 12 "A's" as part of its literary supplement. The entire series of 15 originally appeared in the graphic design magazine Emigré.

In the ongoing saga of the imagination -- and its trials and tribulations in America -- the all-out dismantling of traditional notions of art specialization that Brian Schorn has undertaken certainly has precedents. The late John Cage, refusing to be contained within the definition of "composer" and combining serious pursuits in music, poetry, visual art, electronics, performance, Zen Buddhism and mycology (the study of mushrooms), produced a body of work that puzzles the gatekeepers of Western aesthetics. Allen Ginsberg, Captain Beefheart, Brian Eno: As the list of artists grows, the idea of spreading out one's energies in order to confront an immense world of experience seems to be gaining credibility.

So it seems perfectly in tune that Schorn, now 36, has set his sights on a new medium: experimental music. Devastating experiences that he had in the '80s at concerts by industrial rockers Throbbing Gristle, Skinny Puppy and Severed Heads jump-started his fascination with sound. Eno's various projects involving graphics, writing and music are certainly another inspiration, and Schorn is currently on his way to digesting the mountain of Cage's work.

As he continues to produce innovative design and teach art students, he's learning about synthesizers, music theory and electronics. He's still making connections between art forms like wires between amplifier and speakers. But toward what end? Self-produced CDs? Performances of his poetry and music and design together? Schorn will know when he digests yet another piece of the immensity.

George Tysh is Metro Times' arts editor. E-mail him at gtysh@metrotimes.com

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