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Prayer For Safety: 'Lady Whose Shrine (After T.S. Eliot)' responds to a line from 'The Four Quartets.'

A Different Beat

Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's arty side shows at new San Jose Museum exhibit

By Michael S. Gant

THESE DAYS, buffeted by dire headlines from Iraq, I keep stumbling across portents of disaster. They weren't intended that way, but the process of backfill gives them an eerie resonance. The new exhibit of works by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the downstairs gallery at the San Jose Museum of Art begins with the poet/artist's large 2002 canvas Lady Whose Shrine (After T.S. Eliot). A blue-tinted image of the ancient headless statue The Winged Victory of Samothrace stands in the middle of the canvas surrounded by a swirling vortex of broad strokes of gray paint dashed about the surface. A fragment of "The Dry Salvages" (the third of the Four Quartets) is scrawled, graffiti-style, across the painting.

The poem solicits the "Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory" to pray "on behalf of / Women who have seen their sons or husbands / Setting forth, and not returning." Eliot was referring to "lawful traffic and those who conduct them," but it's hard not to think about the mounting death toll in Iraq, especially since the "lady" in the painting has no eyes with which to weep or even to see the soldiers who won't return. Ferlinghetti himself, in "Blind Poet," a satirical blast from the late '90s, writes presciently of America: "We're the conquerors / We're the new roman emperors / We're conquering the world." Without a head, Winged Victory starts to look like impending defeat.

Ferlinghetti, known primarily as a Beat poet (A Coney Island of the Mind) and the founder of City Lights Books in San Francisco's North Beach, is also an accomplished artist, whose studies began back in the early 1950s in Paris. After a fling with Abstract Expressionism, Ferlinghetti took a hiatus from painting until the 1970s. From the evidence on display at the museum, he never should have stopped.

Nothing in the show dazzles as much as Lady Whose Shrine, but Ferlinghetti's smaller pieces, mostly done in ink on paper, display a flair for subtle washes and fluid lines. The seven parts of his "Serpent Bird, Big Sur" series are rendered on thin, modest notebooklike paper that show signs of crinkling. In the first three pictures, against backgrounds of flowing bands of diluted ink, are three simple snake forms with the abstracted reptiles forming circles and biting their own tails; the other four drawings depict reduced, almost ideographic wing shapes against surging swells of black ink. The mood is decidedly Zen in these drawings, which are like visual haikus.

After Neri, an oil-on-paper work from 2002, places a faceless male figure, its nipples and penis lightly picked out in daubs of yellow, emerging from (or perhaps retreating into) a murky background, evoking painter Nathan Oliviera's isolated people as much as Manual Neri's gaunt, smoothed-over sculptures. In a more playful mood are Ferlinghetti's monoprints of the San Francisco skyline with various high-rises--including the distinctive Transamerica Pyramid--morphed into looming human outlines.

The Art of Lawrence Ferlinghetti runs through June 27 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose. Admission is free. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. (408.294.2787)

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From the April 14-20, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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