“Catch as Catch Can” is a mustard-yellow print as big as a billboard currently pasted on to the Elizabeth Murray Art Wall. In black block capitals that titular phrase occupies the print’s central space in a stencil font. Beneath it arcs a black band that loops once over itself, while whips of line that take the shape of sketchy tornado drawings bookend the phrase on both sides. When the exhibition ends the print will be torn down.
This piece was produced collaboratively between Lawrence Weiner and Jene Highstein at the behest of the prominent critic and occasional curator, Lilly Wei. Typically one finds Weiner’s text-based art in galleries or perhaps on the street. I’ve always considered those environments pertinent to the work. So I was curious to see if a Weiner one-liner would hold up in a poetry club. It did, though it probably wouldn’t have were it not for Highstein’s breezy squiggles.
Of course, a poetry club is very different than an art gallery. This one is long and skinny with high brick walls, a stage at one end and a bar at the other with maybe ten rows of stackable chairs in between. Spot lights with red, blue, and green filters mix color through the dimmed incandescence. The Art Wall is on one side of this horizontally oriented space, and though it’s enormous it’s still peripheral. Focus is kept on the stage, which had been taken by a young woman who was reciting a Ginsberg poem and eliciting responses from the audience on the evening I stopped in.
That Weiner is not a poet seems important to the success of this work, because it relieves his words of any poetic obligations. What we have instead is a readymade phrase that the artist has recontextualized, and this is what powers an otherwise meaningless cliché about making do with what one has. Weiner’s choice for a bold stencil font gives this stock adage an edge of pseudo seriousness, which is delightfully undermined by Highstein’s tornadic doodles. Scale helps too. The sheer massiveness of this print adds a sense of grandiosity that only inflates the work’s inherent jest. In an atmosphere where word choice and linguistic presentation are carefully attended to, Weiner gives us a whopper of bumper-sticker wisdom.
What this piece does so well is suck any stiffness, sobriety, or solemnity right out of the room and pump in its place a casual sensibility that champions humor, playfulness and spontaneity. It’s a lively work, full of gesture and speed, and also a little violence. After all, tornados destroy things. If Highstein’s three twisters were understood as one twister moving across an expanse, then Weiner’s phrase would be the only body in its path. The formally ordered and conceptually driven element would be consumed by the chaotic and sensual. That reading appealed to me and it helped me realize something about my taste for poetry: that rigorous arrangements and intellectual cleverness are easiest to appreciate on the page, from a stage it’s the performance that counts.