River of Words

Robert Mahon connects the metaphors of photography to the metaphors of poetry in his photomontage of poet Gerald Stern.

By: Susan Van Dongen

Robert Mahon’s portrait of Gerald Stern is made up of lots of little photographic moments.

   Having spent a long afternoon with poet Gerald Stern, and later trying to boil his thoughts down into a single feature article, I can testify there’s just no way to capture New Jersey’s former poet laureate easily.
   Anything might set the stage for some scribbling later on: a walk around his Lambertville neighborhood near the Delaware & Raritan Canal, a dog passing by, city workers cleaning a drain, a pretty woman — all of these things catch his attention.
   Because Mr. Stern writes at an old table in the kitchen of his 19th century home in Lambertville, there’s a pile of the usual detritus nearby — bill, letters from former students, grocery lists, old books and new magazines. Much of this ordinary flotsam and jetsam makes it into Mr. Stern’s work as well.
   Stockton-based photographer Robert Mahon confronted the same challenge when he took on the task of portraying Mr. Stern. Instead of a making a single, traditional portrait of Mr. Stern, Mr. Mahon employed a favorite methodology — photo-montage. He utilized numerous small photographs as well as pieces of Mr. Stern’s writings, notes, old snapshots of himself and family in Pittsburgh and other related biographical pieces of the man’s "life puzzle."

Gerald Stern in his kitchen.

   The result is the enormous "Eaten by Rats, Still Alive: A Portrait of Gerald Stern," (three panels, 60-by-120 inches), featured in Correspondences: Poetry and Contemporary Art, on view at the Hunterdon Museum of Art in Clinton through Jan. 4. Curated by Donna Gustafson, the exhibition carries on the tradition of collaboration between artists and poets. Indeed, three of the artists worked in tandem with living poets to create art seen for the first time at the Hunterdon Museum. Along with Mr. Mahon’s affiliation with Mr. Stern, sculptor Nancy Cohen collaborated with poet Edwin Torres and Princeton-based artist Jamie Fuller was inspired by the writings of Laurie Sheck. The show also includes works by Diana Gonzalez Gandolfi, Yucef Merhi and Sheba Sharrow.

Gerald Stern with mask.

   As a special event hosted by the museum to celebrate the marriage between the visual and literary worlds, a number of the artists and writers in the show will participate in a panel discussion Nov. 2.
   "These artists and poets continue the thread of unbroken connection between art and poetry that we began to trace with Baudelaire," writes Ms. Gustafson in the exhibit catalog. "The importance of this history is not to define the enormously complex relations of poetry to art, but instead to understand the strength of the bond between individual poets and artists who through interaction, collaboration and similar interests, form the histories of poetry and art."
   Interestingly, Mr. Mahon began his career in the late ’70s, making portraits of poets.
   "(My original idea) was to relate the way I took the photograph to each person’s writing," Mr. Mahon says. "This project and this exhibit is interesting because there’s a kind of spiraling back to where I began in photography. There is a work in the exhibit, done in 1978, that has to do with the poet James Wright."
   Mr. Mahon went on to photograph poets John Ashbury and Howard Moss, which led to a meeting with the late contemporary composer John Cage.
   "That’s when everything changed," Mr. Mahon says. "Cage had a profound influence on me. I had read his books and decided the right way to photograph him was to use chance processes. Cage taught me how he used chance processes in (composing) music and then I took those methods and applied them to photography."
   With his early work, Mr. Mahon utilized chance processes with just about every element of the photograph — from simple things like the choice of lens and angle to the paper he chose to print with. The processes themselves were decided upon by numbers, which, in turn, were "chosen" by throwing coins.
   "Cage worked with the I Ching — the ancient Chinese oracle — as a way of generating numbers," Mr. Mahon says. "In order to determine a passage (to be read) in the book you toss three coins six times and you get a number from one to 64. I learned this way of generating random numbers from Cage. You take the resulting number and apply it to whatever you’re working on. It’s always very interesting — you go down a particular path and it inevitably changes. It always go off in a different direction than what you’ve planned."
   For the portrait of Mr. Stern, Mr. Mahon also was influenced by dada artist Marcel Duchamp’s "Standard Stoppages," which used a length of string dropped from a ladder to determine the parameters of the piece.
   "The center section (of the work) takes the shape of a river," Mr. Mahon says. "It’s a river of words which have come from Stern’s books, his notebooks and his manuscripts. The fragments that are used and the shape of the ‘river’ were chance determined. I got that from dropping a string from a ladder. The only rule I had was that the string had to fall within the center third of the board. I used the shape to (determine) the shape of the flowing river of words."
   Born in Wilmington, Del., Mr. Mahon has a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from the University of Delaware. His work with Cage culminated in a 126-image portrait of the composer, acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1987. The piece also was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the American Center in Paris and the Kolnischer Kunstverein in Cologne, Germany.
   Mr. Mahon collaborated with Cage again to create the 216-image John Cage: A Portrait Series, Wall to Wall, a collage of 15 photographs taken at the composer’s 70th birthday celebration. This work was acquired by the New York Public Library in 1998, along with a plethora of Mr. Mahon’s artist books, portfolios and other large-scale photographic collages.
   The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as a grant from the Rutgers Center for Innovative Printmaking, Mr. Mahon’s work has been included in major exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Twining Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has Mr. Mahon’s Liberty Series in its permanent collection.
   In January 2001, Mr. Mahon’s sixth one-person exhibit, Look Up to Cram, was held at Raritan Valley Community College, where he has taught photography since 1998. A new series, titled "Ancients," was included in the show and featured light-filled photographs of Lambertville yoga teacher Abigail Boehm among a forest of bristlecone pines — some of which are 5,000 years old — in the White Mountains of California. Throughout the piece, Mr. Mahon layered text from Ms. Boehm’s journal, as well as fragments in Sanskrit from the spiritual literature of India.
   Like the photo-montage of Mr. Stern, the overall effect creates a puzzle-portrait of Ms. Boehm’s life, her influences and spiritual beliefs. It gives greater understanding of the individual’s essence than a typical two-dimensional photograph.
   "Photography as art is mythological, universal in significance," Mr. Mahon writes in his artist’s statement. "Photography’s metaphors connect it to poetry. Alan Watts wrote, ‘The art of poetry is to say what cannot be said.’ The art of photography is to visualize what cannot be seen."
Robert Mahon’s photo-montage of Gerald Stern and mixed media works are included in the group show Correspondences: Poetry and Contemporary Art, at the Hunterdon Museum of Art, 7 Lower Center St., Clinton, through Jan. 4. Artists and poets panel Nov. 2, 2-4 p.m. Gallery hours: Tues.-Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Suggested donation, $3. For information, call (909) 735-8415. On the Web: www.hunterdonartmuseum.org