featuring: (From bottom right)
Ken Milokowski, Frances Barber, Vivek Shraya, Catherine Owen, Catherine Black, Margaret Christakos, Karen Correia di Silva
The Poets Series 2017/18
Acrylic on canvas and panel
The Poets Series is an exploration in encomium.The idea behind the Poets Series is to paint portraits of living poets and let each poet pick the next as a practice of praco-poesis. More simply put, the Poets Series is a round robin of poets. Janisse-Barlow began this work by crowd sourcing poets to begin each branch. She asked the poets who were picked if she could paint a portrait of them, and if they wouldn't mind selecting the next poet to add to the series. The response was been astounding. As the beginning poets included other poets, and the archive began to grow, branch by branch into an amazing narrative of contemporary poetry, that spans over eighty portraits. The Poets Series was successfully Kickstarter funded and has become a widely celebrated project which highlights a complex tangle of living poets in a loose archive. Here, in the work of The Poets Series, Janisse-Barlow is given an opportunity to spend time with each individual poet as she goes through the process of painting their likeness, utilizing a reverse ekphrasis as she works to each likeness.
The Poets Series project was inspired by a Detroit based painter's work Ann Mikolowski, who took to documenting the poets who passed through the Alternative Press in Detroit (http://www.detroitartistsworkshop.com/mikolowski-ann/). These tender portraits locate this project in a beautiful tradition of encomium, which is further articulated in Robert Creeley's poem to Eddy Lindon: https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Creeley/Naropa_7-84/Creeley-Robert_23_Thanks_Naropa_7-84.mp3). The tenderness of this poem and the influence of Mikolowski's miniatures as major inspirations aims this project in the direction of kindness and celebration, and dedicates Janisse-Barlow's skills as a painter to a project that is collective and civic. As a poet herself (www.melaniejanissebarlow.com), her respect for the beautiful and challenging work of making poetry is implicit in her choice to highlight poets. She envisioned a body of work that focussed on encomium—an act of kindness and celebration, and her mind went straight to the poets around her. Who better to celebrate than those who dedicate themselves to the reaching of language and ideas? And what better way than a portrait in paint?
Writing and publishing poetry takes dedication and courage. It is often unpaid work and many moments of questioning the value of continuing. And yet, everyone continues to work with the words in order to progress to the edges and boundaries of language. Everyone beacons and creates varieties of conceptual and real communities who work in their own way to further an understanding of our times. This process of gathering and collaborating is a crucial aspect of Janisse-Barlow's practice, and in this sense, The Poets Series, enlivens her practice as it maps itself into existence, because with each portrait, she is presented with her community as it articulates itself across the canvas. The Poets Series is a project which channels into an archive of her community's formation in all of its complexity.
The Poets Series has been featured in many literary journals both in print and online,
as well as in person at galleries and bookstores.
Here links to some of these features:
Hand drawn map of Poets Series threads
The Poets Series. 2017
A NOTE ON ANARCHIC AND FEMINIST METHODOLOGIES:
A GHOST IN THE ARCHIVE
The Ghost in the Archive: Gwendolyn MacEwan
The Poets Series. 2018
Acrylic on panel, 4" x 4"
The Poets Series is a collection of executed portraits. Yes. But after more scrutiny, there is an unsaid tactic to its methodology. Not unlike Janisse-Barlow's Ship of Fools Project, The Poets Series stakes a claim at a critique of many of the methodological and hierarchical assumptions of portraiture and perhaps even in the assumptions that might choose the artists who would create civic portraiture. The project starts from the bottom, meaning, it is not commissioned by an institution. Janisse-Barlow as an artist is not amongst the 'right now' popular contemporary artists that would likely be asked to execute such a collection. This is a purposeful and implicit aspect of the Poets Series. It starts from the bottom. It insists that 'the people have the power' (Patti Smith) and follows its own trajectory from this positioning.The project purposely utilizes crowd sourcing and a developmental model that relies solely on the decision of the poet just before, creating a meandering/personal decision making process that does not necessarily comply with 'famousness' or award culture assumptions that might normally govern such an ambitious body of work. It relies on nothing comprehensive—and grows as a result of personal choice. The project is concerned very little with hierarchical positioning. It is meant to be anarchic, haptic, loose. It is meant to question our assumptions that keep women artists outside of the canon. It is meant to ursurp.
At the beginning of the execution of the project, Janisse-Barlow crowd sourced her social media to formulate the original group of poets approached for this project. Of those first recommenders, only one was actually a poet herself - Catherine Owen. It seemed a shame that she missed out on a portrait, and so, Janisse-Barlow asked her, what would happen if we reversed your thread? Who is the ghost in this archive?
It didn't take Owen long to come back with the late Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwan—a mysterious and witchy figure on the Canadian poetry scene in the 1960's-1980's. Once this choice was established, the late poet Joe Rosenblatt (featured in this project as well) gave permissions to Janisse-Barlow to use a photograph that he took of the late poet as the source material for the portrait. Janisse-Barlow made the decision to paint MacEwan in miniature in order to give a nod to the artist Ann Mikolowski— whose miniatures of the artists and poets that passed through the Alternative Press in Detroit were a real inspiration for this project. To include these non-linear aspects within the project is also purposeful. THe ghost in the archive acknowledges glitchiness. It allows for reversals and open-endedness.
This excerpt comes from the studio notes Janisse-Barlow took during the execution of this project:
'I kind of have a special relationship with Gwen, so in some ways I am not too surprised that she has appeared in the Poets Series.
Many years ago, I met someone who had tried to help Gwen out of the suffering that she went through in her life in relation to addiction—and strangely, this 94 year-old woman was trying to help me decades later. Her name was Ruth. I would sneak out of her living room where a bunch of women would meet to learn about recovery and I would look around at her books, which lined every hallway of her house. I found a collection of Gwen's books near the bathroom —all signed to Ruth. As I was poring over them, Ruth busted me and laughed. She had been wondering what I had been up to sneaking off all the time. It was then that she disclosed to me that she had been very close to Gwen and had tried to help her many times over the years before her death. Suddenly, Gwen's ghost had a real hand in saving my life. She became a sort of ghostly cheerleader.I am not sure why, but I do know that it worked. Not too long after, I was in a group show with Bill Bissett and a few other painters and the gallery was trying to raise money for the bust of Gwen that is now in Gwendolyn MacEwen park in the Annex neighbourhood in Toronto, Canada. They were auctioning off a few items of Gwen's to raise funds, and I spent all of my rent money on a pair of her earrings —a tiny pair of brass moons. They were even missing a part as there was a hole in the bottom of the moon where something was supposed to hang. I added a giant dangly bit to the ends, of course. I purchased the earrings over fifteen years ago, and still to this day they are a treasure that reminds me of my choices. I painted Gwen this weekend. It was eerie and wonderful.I wore the earrings. There was at some point, a large and unexplainable crash in the hallway. And now, there is a ghost in the archive and I wouldn't have it any other way.'
There is a ghost in the archive and a spirit. The spirit of the Poets Series Project is one of generosity. In 2019/2020, Janisse-Barlow gifted each portrait to the respective poets, releasing the body of work out into the world, in order for it to be on display. In the spirit of the original ideas of the project, choosing to defy the idea of pursuing the notoriety of a museum or gallery exhibition, instead relying on its own hapticity of display, is one of the greatest successes of the project. To note: a work in progress show was mounted in the Toronto home of artists Nicole Collins and Michael Davidson, where many Toronto poets gathered in the back garden, during the exhibition, to read their poems, allowing the project to remain in the thicket of artist spaces. Here is a link to some words on this unique showing: https://www2.ocadu.ca/event/26-nicole-collins-and-michael-davidson-present-melanie-janisse-%C2%ADbarlow-the-poets-series
THE POETS SERIES PORTRAITS