Art Joins Poetry on the Beach
Hank Pitcher at Sullivan Goss, James Van Arsdale at Left Coast Books
Tidal Forces, the new show of paintings by Hank Pitcher at Sullivan Goss (7 E. Anapamu St.), offers 30 or so recent images of the Central Coast. Some, like the 2010 “Two Figures and a Wave” or “Beach Volleyball, 7-10” from the same year, seem anecdotal, while others, such as the various pictures of the Gaviota Coast from winter and spring of 2011, appear primarily concerned with the contrasts and echoes of larger earth forms. What knits these disparate approaches together? There’s Pitcher’s skill and sensibility, to be sure—composition and the feel of the brush are in exquisite balance throughout—but there’s also a larger aesthetic context, something that literary critic and historian Paul Fussell dubbed the “American Shore Ode” back in 1962, that’s worth considering, especially as it allows one to make connections between poetry and painting that are too often left vague and obscure.
According to Fussell, an American Shore Ode is “a lyric of some length and philosophic density spoken (usually at a specific place) on an American beach; its theme tends to encompass the relationship of the wholeness and flux of the sea to the discreteness and fixity of land objects. This kind of poem does more than simply engage in transcendental meditations about the sea: The important thing is the dissimilarity between shore and sea, sand and water, separateness and cohesiveness, analysis and synthesis—a dissimilarity which explains and justifies their paradoxical marriage.” Fussell was writing about Walt Whitman—in particular, the great poems he wrote about walking the beaches of “Paumanok,” his preferred name for Long Island—but he was also describing a whole genre that emerged from Whitman, which includes such great works as Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West,” A.R. Ammons’s “Corsons Inlet,” and Amy Clampitt’s “Beach Glass.”
Looking at this show, and meditating on its wonderful title, Tidal Forces, I was struck by how apt this description of a kind of poem becomes when it is applied to Pitcher’s paintings. Analysis and synthesis, separateness and cohesiveness, the wholeness and flux of the sea in relation to the discreteness and fixity of land objects—every one of these terms fits the way that Pitcher portrays the shore. The tidal forces at work in this show are the same “old accounts/that never balanced,” that Clampitt hymns in her ode to the habit of collecting beach glass.
… The ocean,
cumbered by no business more urgent
than keeping open old accounts
that never balanced,
goes on shuffling its millenniums
of quartz, granite, and basalt.
toward the permutations of novelty—
driftwood and shipwreck, last night’s
beer cans, spilt oil, the coughed-up
residue of plastic—with random
impartiality, playing catch or tag
or touch-last like a terrier,
turning the same thing over and over,
over and over. For the ocean, nothing
is beneath consideration.
In a different way, but with similar playfulness and intensity, James Van Arsdale’s multimedia installation Everything You Hear Is True, on view at the gallery in Left Coast Books (5877 Hollister Ave., Goleta) now through July 2, also takes up relations with the ocean and what it holds. The evocative faux-toy sculptures that make up his “Wounded Battleship (Armada)” (2011) were inspired by the 10th anniversary of the Al Qaeda attack on the U.S.S. Cole, but the surrounding imagery, which includes the Santa Barbara Mission and Wal-Mart, relocates that event within the context of American consciousness, where damaged battleships can resemble giant candies with bites taken out. At once incisive and unpretentious, this is art for a generation of shore stalkers at the edges of seas both real and virtual.