Erasure Poetry: Clifford Owens at CPM Gallery

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While the word “abstract” often connotes bodiless-ness or the absence of the physical, the abstract drawings of Clifford Owens at CPM Gallery are concretely tactile. Using graphite putty packed into bottle caps, Owens, a Baltimore-born artist, created thirteen 30-by-20-inch drawings in which the viewer can see the thick texture of the medium streaked across each sheet of paper.

One might be tempted to play Rorschach with these large black and white pieces. Many are smudged or smeared. But the attempt to discern a recognizable shape would detract from the more provocative act of simply considering the movements of the artist’s putty-filled bottle caps that made these lines and marks in the first place. Viewed as movements, these abstracts are maps that retrace Owens’ process, the steps he took to arrive at the finished series.

The title of the show, Skully, comes from a popular game Owens played as a child in Druid Heights, just a mile away from Bolton Hill, where this new gallery (run by artist Vlad Smolkin) is located. The game seems a hybrid of shuffleboard, hopscotch, and marbles, where the board is drawn onto the pavement. Players each have a game piece—a bottle cap—that they must move from one square (or “block”) to the next, in numerical order, without having their cap knocked off by another player. There are thirteen numbered blocks in all, with the 13th (the “skull”) in the center of the board.

When Owens was a kid, players took pride in their caps and customized them, packing them with wax, tar, or quarters and modifying their appearance. The cap is the player’s identity, both as a means of literal representation on the board but also as a means of creative expression.


Installation view of Skully at CPM Gallery
A Dollar Short, 2020, 49 gold leafed one-dollar bills, wooden shelf
Pocket Paper by Clifford Owens

To win the game, a player moves their cap according to the predetermined movements of the board. To create the thirteen abstracts in Skully, Owens decided where and how to move his putty-filled cap each time. The former is an act of competitive repetition; the latter is an act of spontaneous construction.

One of Owens’s abstracts has horizontal strokes moving back and forth across the top while the bottom is a series of concentric semi-circles rippling upward. In another, all strokes radiate out from the center—or perhaps move inward toward the center from the outer edge. In another, four distinct quadrants are created, the strokes of each quadrant made in different angles. Owens attaches the cap (sometimes two) to the piece it created, a sort of artist’s signature and the only mark of color one might see. When the cap is affixed to the paper, his game is complete.

Detail of Untitled (Skully), 2020, graphite putty, plastic bottle caps on paper, 30 x 22 inches

On its own, each work might look like a hasty fingerpainting project. The artist’s thumbprints can be located with ease. On one piece, I thought I saw the imprint of a boot. But when viewed as a set—and in context of the other work on view in the exhibition, including smaller abstracts, photograms, and drawings adorned with gold leaf that each contain similar movements and shapes—more sophisticated experimentation is clearly afoot.

As a series, these thirteen pieces convey process. There is a tension between order and chaos in the way Owens chose to move the caps: some lines look smooth and careful while others look erratic and rushed. We are left looking at the artifacts that remain.

Perhaps it’s the thickness of these bold black lines that reminds me of redactions on a classified document, those black rectangles that censor text from view. Redactions are the consequence of a document moving from one sphere of knowledge to another, from private to public. In some ways, this show is doing the opposite—moving something of a game played out in the open to the inside of an art gallery. Redactions cover up “sensitive” information, reinforcing the notion that information is, in some respects, always proprietary.

Untitled (Skully), 2020, graphite putty, plastic bottle caps on paper, 30 x 22 inches
Untitled (Skully), 2020, graphite putty, plastic bottle caps on paper, 30 x 22 inches
Untitled, 2020, black and white photograms mounted on archival museum board, 20 x 16 inches
Installation view of Skully at CPM Gallery. L: A Dollar Short, 2020, 49 gold leafed one-dollar bills, wooden shelf, 7 x 3.5 x 2 inches ; R: Untitled, 2020, black and white photograms mounted on archival museum board, 9 3⁄4 x 16 3⁄4 inches
In the end, the successful erasure reveals more than it conceals.
Laurence Ross

Placing Owens’ abstracts in the context of redaction seems to highlight the inherent juxtaposition of Skully: a childhood game played in West Baltimore and, now, an exhibition in a new, crisp gallery space in Bolton Hill. Some elements of the artist’s past are carried over and visible; others, I’m sure, remain blocked out, obscured. A redaction, however, does not negate that there is something to glean here. And for some, redactions spark intrigue.

A more poetic way to consider what is lost when any medium is brought from its native territory to the gallery space is to think of erasure poetry. When poets create an erasure, they begin with the text of another author and delete and delete until what remains is an aesthetically rendered fragment of the original. Even though the process of erasure poetry involves a lot of cutting out, the result (when the form is at its best) magnifies a formerly unseen beauty. In the end, the successful erasure reveals more than it conceals.

The 13th abstract in Skully is the only one concealed from view upon first entering the gallery. Twelve of the thirteen are lined up along one long wall; the 13th hangs opposite, around a corner, over an open, empty fireplace. What does it mean to play a game in which the number thirteen, commonly associated with superstitions of death or bad luck, is the goal? What happens when one focuses all of one’s energy on the skull, when one aims his piece at death?

It is easy and natural, especially in winter, to focus on the darkness of it all. Winter is the season of erasure, and death seems like the final redaction. But death is not so one-sided; death can also fertilize. Looking at these thick lines, these muddy smudges, I remember black can be a sign of richness rather than absence: Black soil, for example, is dense with the nutrients necessary for growth. And from that soil, one might spark something new.


Skully installation image at CPM


Skully is on view at CPM through Saturday, January 16. The exhibition is viewable by appointment only; to make an appointment, email [email protected]

Skully installation at CPM

Images courtesy of the artist and CPM, Baltimore

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