You are on page 1of 3

A Bop Prosody

erica lewis and Mark Stephen Finein


It lifts you up. It gets its way.
It doesnt want to be understood but it wants to say something.
It wants you to like it.
It is also true.
Its not necessary to understand a work to like it. Or to agree on what that truth is.

I am a poet, and because of my relationship to words there is, perhaps, always a personal
attraction to visual works that incorporate words, or what seems like writing visual
works that invite conversations with their written elements, however liminal. I think what
draws me to Bird Lives and what draws me to Marks work is the artists
relationship or non-relationship to the figure, the relationship or non-relationship to the
written word. The juxtaposition with negation, darkness even. I wonder about the artist
on a personal level and the amount of personal erasure that exists in each piece.

Encountering Raymond Saunders work for the first time through erica: I am reminded of
Joseph Beuys blackboard sketches and their simple, concept-driven immediacy. I have
memories of being in a classroom with a particularly animated and beloved teacher who
would frantically jot notes, drawings and scribbled equations, connecting them with
arrows or other markings in an inspired, and often wonderfully flawed, attempt to convey
the subject. I was fascinated by the spectacle of such a (hyper) active mind at work, and
mesmerized by the blackboard itself, by the ACT of writing a thought-process. Its this
almost desperate fervor to GET THE CONCEPT DOWN that I see in Bird Lives. I see
its connections to the New York School poets and the Abstract Expressionists of the 50s
and 60s, and, more expansively, later, to Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose graffiti-inspired
neo-expressionist and primitivist paintings and commentaries on the black condition in
America were popular in the 70s and 80s. The nave lines and blunt symbolism in Bird
Lives recalls many artists and works that were burgeoning on the Lower East Side of
New York in the late 70s when, through admixtures of poetry, drawing, and painting,
artists and writers and punk and hip hop musicians inspired and drew inspiration from
one another. The commentary Bird Lives perhaps mimicking ubiquitous Jesus
Lives or even Clapton Is God graffiti references the great bebop saxophonist
Charlie Parker with whimsical doodles of crowns and simple non-arithmetic (5+6+7= 8),
alluding perhaps to a purely subjective mathematical theorem that in fact The Bird is

King. Long Live the King! This hodge-podge, these disparate elements telling a story by
virtue of juxtaposition.

Raymond Saunders work seems to share an affinity with the first wave of New York
School writers. The New York School poets not only found inspiration in each other, but
also from the Abstract Expressionists (or Action Painters), including Jackson Pollock,
Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and
Fairfield Porter. There was a general sense of playfulness and chattiness in their works;
elements of the mundane as well as the surreal, the childlike and the profane all
seemingly thrown together: sketches, bits of painting, jotted down phrases, shreds of
cloth, found objects. These strange juxtapositions employed a lyrical, improvisational
quality akin to the avant-garde jazz movement, bebop. The use of humor and inclusion of
elements found in pop culture and the everyday were drawn directly from the musical
lyricism, improvisation, and multicultural appropriation of jazz and jazz language. All
this coalesced into a new language: a bop prosody, based in a new artistic and
grammatical sensibility less reliant on formal, classical, or modernist structure, focusing
on directly capturing the mood of a specific moment.
Bird Lives spoke to me initially because of its darkness, but also because it captured
the mood of our specific moment. Playing in layers of darkness. The seeming
commentary on black culture and culture at large. The relationship that I have with words
and order come into stark contrast with this work. And Charlie Parker. How he lived.
How he still lives, is alive and celebrated, through his music, his critique of culture in
fact re-working of culture is just as subversive, just as stark and driven by narrative. A
collaborative darkness.

As a visual artist, a few major milestones in my creative evolution have made it possible
for me to appreciate the depth of what Saunders is doing:
1. Falling in love, as a child of eight, with da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt,
which led to incessant drawing.
2. Taking a course in the Old Masters Painting Technique, at 16 a technique
which involves doing a white drawing on a dark background and repeating this
process over and over with layers of color washes.
3. Being introduced to the work of Wassily Kandinsky. This produced a fundamental
shift in how I viewed and understood modern painting.
4. The realization that although I might not actually LIKE Picasso, his almost
genetic understanding of art history and mastery of numerous creative processes
was virtually unparalleled, and that it was possible to be the consummate genius
of ones era.
5. The moment I saw my first Basquiat and experienced 40 years of art and social
history in one painting: I cried.

6. Seeing a Joseph Beuys retrospective in the 90s in Germany; a world I had barely
known existed was revealed to me.
7. When erica asked me to do some drawings for a book she was writing. I had a bad
case of the flu and in my feverish and mildly hallucinatory state I read her work
and produced my first purely abstract group of drawings. A paradigm shift.
Without this basis, Raymond Saunders deceptively complex work might have appeared
simplistic, even nave, and thus lost on me. The painting may look like random, quick
doodles to some observers, but they are a lifetime in the making. I feel the immense
gravity of that history when I look at it.

I came into contact with this work at a very turbulent and disturbing time in this country.
Recent events, including the failure to indict in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric
Garner, a renewed focus on police violence, and violence against the police as retribution
for the failed indictments, had resulted in protests and die-ins staged all across the United
States, including Saunders hometown of Oakland. Looking into the darkness of the
canvas, of the world around me, I came to see and identify this painting in terms of the
slogan/call to action Black Lives Matter: bird lives matter. This all weighed heavily on
my mind as I visited and re-visited this painting, struggling to make sense of it while
struggling to make sense of the world around me, and how this, all of this, was seeping
into my own creative work as I tried to finish work on poems that recount my familys
own complex history with race and culture in America. The conflation of personal and
past and present. Cataloging darkness. A digging in of our deepest collective dirt; our
darkness reflected back at us.

Saunders mixed media work invites a social/racial dialogue. His pervasive use of black
as a base color is not only visually and thematically striking, but seems to directly refer to
his own essay, Black Is A Color (1967), in which the artist argued against the prevailing
symbolic, metaphorical, and thematic use of black as representing nothingness: as lack of
color, as lack of light and life and soul. In this respect, Saunders work has a timeless yet
of-this-moment feel that speaks to us all in this supposedly post-racial America, asking
us to consider its possibilities. In this, Saunders shares a striking similarity to JeanMichel Basquiat, whose expressionistic and primitivist paintings ironically belied a
highly evolved, abstract thought and creative process and superior technique. However,
where Basquiat was content to riff off of the inherently racist concept of the AfricanAmerican-as-noble-savage with aggressive humor and at times downright brutal sarcasm,
Saunders work exhibits a more refined spirituality and careful consideration of the many,
often conflicting, elements making up the collage of contemporary life.

It doesnt add up, but it does.