In concrete poetry, words and letters take on physicality. No longer simple vehicles for conveying ideas, they give shape to a poem through their dispersion, orientation and individual topography. Perhaps you once wrote a poem about fish in the shape of a fish? That was concrete poetry.
Concrete Is Not Always Hard, Ajit Chauhan’s current exhibition at the pop-up gallery 2291 3rd Street (yes, that is the name of the space and its address) is a group of framed works on paper made with typewriters and their ink. It’s also the first output from the Minnesota Street Project, an ambitious arts complex backed by Deborah and Andy Rappaport set to open in March of 2016.
The show borrows much from poetry, in its sense of rhythm and a tendency towards deconstruction of solid forms. The very name of the exhibition comes from A. Barbara Pilon’s 1972 book on -- what else? -- concrete poetry. Lines from Jack Spicer poems appear regularly as titles. Sometimes the references are less obvious and titles become purely descriptive. Polar, a sparse pattern of cursive “o”s, looks just like falling snow.
Separating letters from words, Chauhan delicately overlaps individual typewriter characters in wavy brushtroke-like shapes. The letters weave together like chainmail on creamy sheets of old paper. Chauhan is not a poet himself, but a friend of the Bay Area poetry community, members of which graced the June 5 opening of his show with readings.
Interspersed with the typewriter pieces are abstract ink works of hard-edged geometry. The blocky, gridded forms are reminiscent of slide puzzles. If we could just get our hands on them, we could resolve the shapes into coherent images or instructions. Swimming Past You (Spicer again), seems to contain fragmented arrows, confused and contradictory directions that connote a somewhat frantic type of watery activity.
The works are constrained by the capacity of Chauhan’s typewriter and, upon completion, the simple black frames outlining each centered composition. With so much internal repetition, an every-other pattern of installation (type, ink blocks, type, ink blocks) and a total of 31 pieces in the modest gallery space, Concrete Is Not Always Hard suffers a bit from overabundance. My favorite elements of the show were ancillary: the use of someone else’s personalized stationery, for example, and Chauhan’s rich, allusive titles.
As far as kick-offs go, Concrete is a tame exhibition for an endeavor that seeks to revolutionize the way in which patrons support the arts. But according to its website, the Minnesota Street Project “is committed to retaining and strengthening the vibrant contemporary visual arts community in San Francisco.” And Chauhan’s work is squarely situated in a local lineage of minimalist and poetic precursors to be suitably emblematic of the project’s goals.
Concrete Is Not Always Hard is on view at 2291 3rd Street, San Francisco through July 11, 2015. For more information visit minnesotastreetproject.com.