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Artist and Writer Create Turbulence

"I like Ben's abstract use of language," says Winters. "It corresponds with my own concerns using abstraction as a process to build new pictures." Artist and Writer Create Turbulence

When artist Terry Winters approached writer Ben Marcus, associate professor in the School of the Arts, about a collaborative art project, he didn't expect such a radical mix of media.

The collaboration began two years ago when Winters was a visiting critic in the Visual Arts Division of the School of the Arts and Marcus was upstairs in the Writing Division. Winters was following Marcus' writing and became interested in collaborating on a project. They decided to take advantage of Columbia's LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, also located in Dodge Hall.

The result is a book, of sorts, titled Turbulence Skins. The work includes 42 drawings by Winters with a narrative by Marcus. The presentation of the narrative in the book is unique. Marcus' writing is broken up across the drawings on a "Post-it palette," so the narrative becomes an iconic addition to the visual experience.

"I wanted to write something to take part in the art, not comment on it," says Marcus. "I was struck by how cerebral and cognitive his work was. It shows how the mind works, as though he's diagramming thought. I was freed up from having a typical short story audience, and wrote more cognitively, more cerebrally."

According to Winters, the images suggest weather systems, geological formations or moving animated scenes.

The process began with Winters creating the 42 central drawings. Marcus then viewed them and wrote a narrative to fit. The back-and-forth collaboration took a year and a half.

"We developed a parallel approach, a sympathy from the beginning," recalls Winters. To raise the level of communication during the process, they included some of their notes directly on the page around the images -- the "marginalia," as Winters describes it -- giving the finished product a kind of sketchbook feel. "It was another layer of collaboration," he says.

Most artists would never agree to have their work overlaid with another's, but it was Winters' idea to break up Marcus' text and position it literally on top of the drawings. Winters broke up the text to fit the pictures but generally followed Marcus' sequence.

"The [original], central images exist on their own, too [without the narrative and marginalia]," says Winters. "The project is an impure mixture of language and images to create a third thing -- these prints." The original drawings, without the Post-its or marginalia, are currently on display at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts.

"It is always wonderful to realize that the kinds of knowledge produced by image and text are different but complementary in surprising and evocative ways," says Bruce W. Ferguson, dean of the School of the Arts. "The Marcus-Winters collaboration confirms that good art can both be produced individually and in tandem."

"The work was meant to show that everything could connect to everything else," adds Marcus. "Since Terry was making diagrams of a universe or thinking system, I wanted to use grammar that I hadn't used before. The text seems like an adventure story. A couple of [people] are on a hypothetical expedition to save their town from an unnamed threat."

In addition to the lengthy collaboration process, printing the unbound book took three to four months due to the volume of printing -- 9,000 printings were needed to make 50 copies of the project. Each color used in the Post-its and the individual shades of black in the drawings required a separate run through the press, explains Doug Bennett of the LeRoy Neiman Print Center. One page could have more than seven printings.

With copies of Turbulence Skins ready for distribution, Winters and Marcus are already deep into their next endeavors. Marcus is writing the catalog for an upcoming painting show at the Whitney Museum that includes Winters and Matthew Ritchie (who Marcus collaborated with in The Father Costume (Artspace Books). He also has plans to write a book with artist Jasper Johns.

A copy of Turbulence Skins can be viewed in the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, 310 Dodge Hall, weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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Published: Dec 07, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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