Saturday, January 27th, 2018

Wanting to Tell Stories: John Yau’s Wild Children

The Wild Children of William Blake by John Yau

William Tillyer, The Watering Place II, 2013. Acrylic on acrylic mesh and canvas, 70 x 80 inches. Courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London
William Tillyer, The Watering Place II, 2013. Acrylic on acrylic mesh and canvas, 70 x 80 inches. Courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

John Yau is a poet as well as a supremely prolific art and literary critic. A new collection of his prose, The Wild Children of William Blake (from Autonomedia, 2017), centers on oft-forgotten artists and under read writers, with the occult as the leitmotif that threads many of his connections. Leave it to a poet to consider the unseen, the enigmatic — and even the mystical — in critical writing today.

Yau’s apparent sense of constant genuine interest is what first attracted me to his art writing. He works tirelessly in efforts to tell his readers what they don’t already know — as opposed to constantly reminding of theoretical conventions, canonical standards, etc. As the painter Philip Guston said to Bill Berkson, quoted in these pages, “I got sick and tired of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories” (91). His manner of clear analysis is in the service of engaging the senses first and foremost, evident in prose that emerges from curiosity. The writing is sharp, never pedantic but exploratory, off-the-cuff. Like other poets who know how to write about art (from Apollinaire to a litany of modern successors who knew that someone could, and needed to, improve upon those efforts), he looks intently and thinks imaginatively on his subjects and their occasions, coming up with parallels and historical insights that are often strange, memorable. But unlike some poets whose art criticism focuses almost exclusively on formal qualities, Yau’s writing is invariably dedicated to telling stories.

Yau has been engaged with art criticism for the better part of three decades. Reading The Wild Children, one doesn’t get the sense that he sits at his desk, armed with art history textbooks to get it “right” in an anticipated scholarly way — despite the fact of his prolificness (96 articles at Hyperallergic, for instance, where he is a member of the editorial collective that produces the Weekend section, in 2017 alone) and the kind of frame of reference it might require. It really seems like Yau just takes simple notice of what tugs on his coat tails. He makes it a point to put aside time every day to look and ponder at art, and further, to remain in the daily practice of writing.

cover of the book under review
cover of the book under review showing Ghost Still Life by Philip Taaffe

The chosen organizing theme in this book, the occult, gives way to novel approaches (as opposed to otherwise narrower views) to artists, their works and lives, and what to notice in art. As I understand it, the occult relates to and communes with the things in this world that we can maybe perceive but not necessarily see or define, and to consider it is to invoke new experiences that might perhaps bring surprise and new understandings. Its consideration involves, in short, “looking for what was hidden in plain sight, for the invisible within the visible” (35)—which in turn recalls, perhaps, Odilon Redon’s notion of “the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” In his essay on the poet Robert Kelly, Yau observes that “whatever place we consciously or unconsciously inhabit — call it a house or reality — is in a state of flux” (49), that we are constantly dealing in uncertainty. This essay is strange, brilliantly peripatetic, and reveals a lot about Yau’s one-thing-follows-another mode of investigation, and many of his affinities. “Between its root and its obsolescence, the word (the author) wanders, meaning only one thing to him at a time,” (53) he writes.

Yau often turns his attention to painters, refuting the idea that painting is dead — seeing its value, its continual power to transport. In his essay on British artist William Tillyer, Yau asks important questions relative to anachronisms in painting that one might dismiss too quickly. In his analysis, he sides with sincerity, asking “how do you make an image laden with history fresh?” considering what it takes to re-frame an idyllic subject — in this case, a bucolic stone bridge as in the Bridge Paintings series (1982-83) — to bring it up to date, and make it “part of the present rather than an artifact of the past.” I get the sense that loaded subjects like this, tropes from Romanticism that carry over to today, are sometimes frowned upon in more rigorous circles, and yet Yau takes note of Tillyer’s being “critical of those who would approach this subject solely thought mechanical means or solely through an ironic use of paint” (108). The poet’s attention to what’s dialectically possible, worthy of another point of view, proves utterly worthwhile today.

Innate curiosity explains, I think, why Yau pays so much attention to biographical information in these reviews and essays. It’s not his one chosen methodological “lens” per se, and he’s not just paying due-diligence — it’s clear that Yau wants to know, to dig, and for the reader to find out. He’s not an evangelist, either, and his takes bear little air of sentimentality, nostalgia, or hyperbole — it’s more ‘take it or leave it’, and it’s all very user-friendly. The book is broken up into six chapters, with an interrelated parade of fascinating figures that goes from painter Hilma af Klint, in the book’s beginning, to figures like the sole “American Surrealist” poet Philip Lamantia, and the painter Katherine Bradford. Two very striking illustrations made it into print here. Jay Defeo’s The Eyes (1958) takes up an entire spread (befitting of its massive aspect) early on, and Brian Lucas’s rather psychedelic Afternoon’s Embryo (2016) helps to close the book’s eponymous essay. The Wild Children share 264 pages; not one of them is super famous, but all of them are congenial.

John Yau. The Wild Children of William Blake. (Brooklyn, 2017: Autonomedia) ISBN 1570273243. $15