James Baldwin

Emerging Artist Curates His Influences

"I just discovered this cat a month ago," admits Poetry Project curator Christopher Stackhouse. He's referring to Brion Gysin, the avant-garde artist whose newly anthologized 50-year career he will highlight December 7th.

The rangy, 31-year old African-American artist, polite in a blue oxford shirt and subversive in open-toed sandals this cold October day, shifts on his girlfriend's futon couch, enthusiasm undampened by the admission. A broad-headed white dog at his feet keeps sleeping.

A privately-taught multimedia poet from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Stackhouse is a quick study and has no doubt that a gem has dropped into his event-coordinating lap. As presenter of the Friday Night Series of the Poetry Project's 35th season in St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, he's charged with bringing established, multidisciplinary poetic talent to the public from October 2001 to May 2002.

His particular mission --closely instructive to his own passion as an emerging figure on the New York underground arts scene -- is to illuminate and explore the shared poetics of filmmaking, music, visual arts, and the written word.

So the discovery of Gysin is topical kismet for Stackhouse, since the cat at hand is not only the subject of a December publication ( Back In No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader, Wesleyan University Press), but was categorically made for an East Village reading. The Canadian poet-performer-painter's impeccable bleeding edge credentials include being a Beat collaborator of William S. Burroughs in Tangier, and the Bohemian associate of Picasso, Dali, Man Ray and Gertrude Stein in Paris. Deemed an innovator of sound poetry, Gysin was especially interested in getting it off the page and back into ebullient performance.

With talent bookings by anthology editor Jason Weiss, newly-in-the-know Stackhouse will host a late night reading by multimedia performers of all stripes. Videomaker Marshall Reese, printmaker Terry Winters and poet Pierre Joris will join others spouting an unprecedented collection of Gysin's psychic adventures and aesthetic provocations in a cozy ("we've only got 75 chairs") lecture hall annex of the landmark chapel.

While Stackhouse moderates the show and manages the physical operations, supported by three interns and a sound engineer, he'll most likely absorb, absorb, absorb. The Gysin event promises to be a valuable experience for the young poet, who candidly describes himself as "living by his wits," diverted by day with a succession of jobs like editor, film grunt, file clerk, web content producer and art handler in museums.

Even so, spoken word poetry has formed the foundation of his artistic career. Over the past five years, Stackhouse recorded several poetry collections set to syncopated music and sparse, harmonic, computer-generated voicings over polyrhythms, like the Black Market Records/MCA International release The Beauty Of Celeste. Stackhouse frames the recordings as "the aesthetic antithesis of late twentieth century rap, or hip-hop," however much rap provided the inspiration.

Those recordings are in large part what led him to be tapped as a symposiast in the Poetry Project's 1998 "Blues, Hip-Hop, and Identity" and the "Spoken Word, Poetry, Electronic Music" symposium at the Tribes Gallery in 1999. In addition, Ed Friedman, the artistic director the Poetry Project, claims the multimedia poet's conviction that "artmaking should be a multi-genre, multicultural, political, philosophical and historical undertaking," made him a natural choice to curate the late night series.

Despite his oral strengths, the multifaceted Stackhouse submits a good case for putting poetry back on the page, especially when he breaks out the pigments and brushes. Recent works have focused on transforming language into pure image, much the way Gysin did, when he produced paintings suspended between word and image, brush strokes approximating Arabic and Chinese calligraphy. Allowing the mere look of language to dictate its meaning, Stackhouse muses that his own work is "art as notion, as opposed to actual materials. Art for the mind."

His brushy text-based ink-on-papers shown by Gale-Martin Fine Art earlier this year led NY Arts Magazine reviewer Susan Kart to think of "the wall markings made on caves by early humans," while Kevin Platt, director of the gallery and Stackhouse's dealer of two years, cites a parallel to the output of Belgian-French artist and writer Henri Michaux, another influential figure Stackhouse recently recognized. Having sold 25 of Stackhouse's works Platt describes a fascination with the elements of calligraphy created by someone proficient in both written and visual media. "It's as if Christopher's introducing a new vocabulary," the South Chelsea dealer says.

In a sky lit Sixth Avenue living room, a matted and framed set of four pen and ink portraits hang over the Stackhouse girlfriend's futon couch.

The artist waits for an interpretive reaction.

The linear male heads drawn on a ringed pad of paper, top edge ripped, seem like coffeehouse sketches. Staring, cobwebbed eyes have a circular mole placed between them, just like the one Stackhouse has in real life. (A third eye, or just a mole? Stackhouse laughs, "Yes, a third eye.") Vertical lines intersect the serious faces, drawing down from the eye like a monocle chain.

"Tension," prompts the artist, the tension between opposites. Opposite views, opposing urges, perhaps? Two of the heads sport an X on their foreheads: representing the mark of man, explains Stackhouse, the mark of pre- or illiterate man.

"Like the signature of a slave," he adds. Or perhaps that's the former signature of a former slave?

Stackhouse seems distinctly inclined to explore the de-evolution of expression. As a literate artist, he often spurns his ability to write by making marks on paper that look like writing, but somehow aren't, and then he would mean something by them. Gysin would be proud, and given the social context, so too might James Baldwin. Baldwin is one cat Stackhouse has already discovered, at the age of nine when the family relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Stackhouse's Virginian father "traveled with Jimmie's entourage as secretary and friend from 1979 to 1983," and Baldwin's political and social theories pervaded the household. For three years Stackhouse has honed his own expressions of being Black in America as a Fellow of Cave Canem, a 35-year old organization providing retreats and workshops for African-American poets.

A knock at the apartment door reveals a workman in an indeterminate uniform, inquiring about the origin of a water leak discovered downstairs.

"There's no sign of it up here," assures Stackhouse. Yet the soft-spoken poet knows full well that discovery is part and parcel of creation, and it's just a matter of time before the source of a well-spring is identified.


A version of this profile appeared in The Village Voice, December 2001.