Mad Hatters' Review Issue 10, Fall 2008

by C. Mehrl Bennett

Reviewed by Geof Huth


The simplest of constricting structures can allow for the greatest possibility for experimentation and beauty. At least, such seems to be the case with C. Mehrl Bennett’s My Kimono Book, a collection of scores of visual poetry collaborations headed up by Cathy Bennett, each collaboration confined by the stylized outline of a traditional Japanese kimono.

Who would think success possible under such conditions? What secret is there in the kimono? In its mere shape? None, really. The shape is symmetrical, providing a wide flat shoulder, two jutting arms folding back toward each other and flaring at the bottom of the gown. In terms of its cultural significance, the intellectual content that the concept of the kimono brings us, we have to think that the kimono signifies tradition, service, obeisance, and silence—all of which Cathy’s kimonos both seem to emulate and struggle successfully against.

First, we have to understand Cathy’s method of collaboration, for she collaborates here, primarily, in an atypical fashion. Most collaborations, in the visual poetry world, consist of two people trading items back and forth, one starting the process, then the other adding or subtracting to it, and this process continues until the participants agree that some state of grace has been reached with the piece they are working on. Cathy, instead, finds or solicits content for each kimono, and her collaboration consists of taking those contents (words, images, or combinations of the two) of other artists and integrating them into her kimono framework. What she does during this second and critical stage is give the kimonos individual life by emulating the styles of her individual collaborators even as she creates something entirely new out of the pieces she creates. It’s a breathtaking accomplishment, almost as if she is a chameleon that can change into any background it is put up against but which, at the same time, changes the content of the background to match its own.

In her collaborative technique alone, Cathy both conforms to and goes against tradition. She conforms to the traditions of collaboration by reacting appropriately to the work of her collaborators, and she spurns convention by deciding on the final product herself, by being, truly, the full creator of these pieces. And it is a technique that works. Her results react to the data she receives. It is as if her collaborators whispered something into her ear, and she created from that an unexpectedly accurate representation of what they had imagined. Because Cathy has that collaborator’s spirit within her.

This spirit makes her a servant and obeisant to her collaborators, to the work she starts from, to those germs of idea that only she can germinate into these rich tapestries, which range from the almost stark xerography of her Buzz Blur kimono (consisting of simple black and white self-portraits of that artist) to the muted colors and overlapping texts of the Joel Lipman kimono (thus paying homage to Lipman’s constant overprinting technique) to the almost shockingly vibrant colors of the Sheila Murphy kimono (which colors Cathy reverses whenever they fall outside the bounds of the kimono itself). Each of these kimonos is, more than a collaboration, a gift back to the original artists, an expression of comity, a gesture of kindness and servitude. Cathy is the geisha serving all who worked with her to make these pieces manifest.

And these all come to us with the silence of the geisha, the words on the canvas, when they exist, being half-subsumed by the visual data, because these words almost bursting into song are meant for the eye, not the ear.

Each piece does come with additional words, something like an extended footnote by Cathy herself at the foot of each piece. This footnote explains the genesis of the pieces and promotes the work of the artist to whom that particular kimono belongs. It is a generous gesture from an artist of generous spirit, and ample visual talent and grace. Each of these kimonos is a separate reality, merging the visual with the verbal, creating kimonos that are sometimes only visual art but are sometimes visual poems that combine word with image to create transcendence.

These pieces transcend the concept of collaboration, the original works of the collaborators, and the usual bounds of a book of poetry. This is a book of 68 pages of gorgeous color and architectonic text, and I could not live without it on my bookshelf.

C. Mehrl Bennett
C. Mehrl Bennett comes from a fine arts background; B.A. in painting and drawing, spent many years as a mail artist, and has an art exhibit history from the 80ís and early 90ís that focused on junk assemblage (found objects- thus the claim for PRO FOUND). She lives in Columbus, OH, with spouse (they met through mail art), poet John M. Bennett. Her word art has been published in Lost&Found Times, Vispoeology, Otoliths, Naked Sunfish, Womb, Word For/Word, and Black Box.

Related Links:
Blogger Profile
Digital Collaborations
John M Bennett's Storefront

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