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Collages, calligraphy and grids in a retrospective of the late Beat painter Brion Gysin's work

by Isabelle Doal
on 16 March 2011
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The work of British-Canadian artist Brion Gysin, defined by techniques like mixed collages, systematic repetition and "cut-up" (a method he invented), is experiencing somewhat of a revival since his death in 1986. A stream of contemporary artists have recently taken interest in the artist and the newly-opened "Alarme" exhibition at Paris' Galerie de France illustrates the scope of his oeuvre, following two recent important exhibitions of his contributions.

The Pompidou showed a film, jointly produced by Gysin, William Burroughs (the two were good friends) and Antony Balch, demonstrating "semi-conscious states and trances," while his work on sound-collages, a medium he conceived with his former NYC studiomate Ramuntcho Matta, was featured in a group show on the topic at Galerie Anne Barraulthe.


Gysin's based his works on crossings, formally represented by the constant use of grid patterns. Most of the time he employed a rudimentary printing technique, rolling a paintbrush on a paper sheet over a canvas of wire threads, consistently incorporating script letters and photos into the grids.

Both poet and painter, and part of the Beat Generation, Gysin has always played with words and letters as graphic materials. He arrived in New York during World War II and started experimenting with literature and various kinds of writing experiences. He created "permutation poems," repeating a single sentence several times with the words rearranged in different orders so that each reiteration is a new discovery, for example "I don't dig work, man/Man, work I don't dig." Many of these variations he derived using a random sequence and was inspired by free verse, but several also followed a mathematical structure.

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The cut-up technique was used by writers such as John Dos Passos and laid the foundation for "Naked Lunch." "Alarme" shows a couple of artworks featuring pieces of text from the pivotal novel, using letters as signs on small square water-colored papers, created by rolling paintbrushes on metallic grids.

A couple of panels show the four-year-long construction of the Pompidou through a photographic series consisting of vertical stripes stuck together. Small square photos from contact sheets act as grids, one by one incorporated into inked columns reminiscent of skyscrapers.


Completing the overview, a series of ink-painted letters in Asian and Arabic scripts speak to Gysin's devotion to painting and drawing. The artist, who spoke Japanese and Arabic, played with the opposition between the Japanese vertical script and horizontal Arabic writing with an interest in painting these figures to make crossings and grids.

"Alarme" runs through 2 April 2010 at Galerie de France.

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