Speaking in Tongues

Since the advent of John Guare’s marvelous play “Six Degrees of Separation,” it is impossible to deal with combination of seemingly unrelated personalities without making some play on this famous title. How is it possible, the questioner might ask, for one person to relate so closely to a group of other’s without literally sharing their space, if not their actual lives? As the playwright Guare would have it, it is all-possible through that chicanery that is art, art that makes people, spaces, and worlds collide. I began thinking in these terms when contemplating some words on the art of Ed McGowin. Was the artist not someone who I had known for almost twenty years? Were his art works, some of which I own, not the product of an individual who carried the name of Ed McGowin? Or had I been defrauded, quite adroitly, both in my friendship and connoisseurship by one shrewd cookie? As I was to learn, neither was the case.

Beginning in September of 1970, Ed McGowin initiated his Name Change project
which was to culminate two years later in a body of screen prints, site-specific installations, and multiple objects that was to be shown in an exhibition of the same name at The Baltimore Museum of Art. Seen as a creation of its time, the complete Name Change project easily fits midst the serial manifestations of artists such as Sol Lewitt, Hannah Wilke, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, and Eleanor Antin. And yet, it is probably in the company of the only Antin and Nauman that spiritually, McGowin’s output comfortably fits. Only in these three artists’ works does one find the proper admixture of story telling both horrific and humorous that properly fits the Grand Guigniol that is the American Myth. Only real blood and guts Americans can be comfortable with the devious and boring elements of a seriously diaristic, soap opera mode; Europeans, even Marcel Proust turn it into grand opera, and that is something else all together. McGowin further sets himself apart from the other members of this quasi-theatrical trio in that he has seen fit to work not only in various investigatory modes but in the person of different sleuths as well.

At this point one might be tempted to classify McGowin with the psycho-analytical diagnosis of a being with multiple personality disorder recalling the nineteen-fifties melodrama of The Three Faces of Eve. Yet that clinical analysis falls apart quickly. In a classic case of multiple personalities, the various persons can at times remain totally unawares of one another, only to jump out of hiding at certain catalytic moments which generally result in the complete collapse of the individual who has, thus far, kept they glued together. McGowin always knew who his various artistic characters were and when they should and would emerge, especially so in the case of Nathan Ellis McDuff, once appeared, did his job as the time dissembler and then was gone. Or in Ed McGowin’s own words “is dead,” nevermore to appear. ‘Why?’…Simply because his job was done, time could once again return to its regular pace, logic could return, life could go on. But who then were Alvah Isaiah Fost, Lawrence Steven Orlean, Irby Benjamin Roy, Eure Ignatius Everpure, Isaac Noel Anderson, Nicholas Gergory, Nazaianzen, Ingram Andrew Young, Melvill Douglas O’Connor. Edward Everett Updike, Thorton Modestus Dossett, and even Ed McGowin? Each legally verified and registered by law, but only one, registered at birth.

Ed McGowin tells the tale of his process of creating, becoming different people-different artists, to belie the traditional, modernist notion that creativity is linear and ever progressive, never regressive. I believe that he believes this version in all of its seventies-conceptualized sterility. For me, it is simply too clean. I know that something else is and was going on here. Perhaps, something, that is even too bred-in-the bone, for him to see.

As he constructed the ever-so-delicious anagrams with which he would be re-christened, he was thinking of the efficacy of each and every personality. He must have posed a number of questions: Would or could each and every one of them have the tools to do the job, understand the syntax and grammar of the realm in which he would be forced to navigate? Could he cut through the troubled waters and make it to safe harbor, and bring the ship home? More simply put, if each personality had a style, what purpose did the style serve? Which style could best tell the story, make the point, or evoke the dogma with the strongest possible force? And like a master tennis player, which stroke, whether
of the brush or the racket, would finish off the game. Was it Orlean the raconteur? Or Roy, the bizarre poet who conflated fact and fiction? Or Young, the ironic absurdist
who is the most innately Southern? Or Updike, whose dog pictures lash out when all of the other voices are too angry and frustrated, and have become too impotent to act?

Maybe, not so surprisingly, Dossett and McGowin, are the ineluctable Siamese twins. They stand at the forefront most of the time. Maybe, that is because neither of these too artists are anagrams but rather, to various degrees, are denizens of the same land, the American South, a land riven for the past hundred years by two stories, both sad, both debilitating. One story is that of the Black South, of a nation degraded, debased, and almost destroyed. The other is the story of the White South, the ruling oligarchy, which even while in power began its demise and, once the real demise had come during the Reconstruction, finally fell again crossly the Black South yet again. Both Dossett and McGowin know these stories - both of them. They live them still. They tell the stories again and again, because no one will believe them. Or worse, people forget. The story must be told again, in another voice.

And there, I am firmly in the realm of voices. And finally it comes to me: Pentecost! The story in The New Testament, Acts of the Apostles II: As the story goes, “In the days following the Ascension of Jesus, the apostles and disciples, feared for their lives as the early Christians were persecuted and killed. There was no one to lead them. Then one night as they cowered in the upper room, perhaps the same upper room of Maundy Thursday, the Holy Spirit appeared to the collected believers and placed flaming tongues of fire above each and every head. And soon they were speaking in many tongues. And soon they left the upper room, enabled by these new voices, they could now travel the world, spread the message, and yet, tell the same story, different voices for different rooms.

And there it is. Like those apostles, speaking in strange tongues, the eleven voices conjoined in the benevolent person of Ed McGowin are present to be called upon, when a new listener, a new realm is being approached. I know that is why each one of Ed McGowin’s art works carry such clear and resonant message, they each speak through the key, the gesture, the tone, and the style that never let them fall one deaf ears. Not a Tower of Babel, but a coherent chorus of numinous strength and beauty, singing a song that must ever be sung. Will the final version, the final canto, the last verse ever be made, probably not, but it may come closest in the Delta Project that Ed McGowin has for so long wished to complete. And when it happens, its message like the Tongues of Pentecost will ring out clear and beautiful.

Thomas Sokolowski
July 2006



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