- Cavorting in the Towers of Doom
150 Pages; Print, $35.00
What is it that collages do? Valery Oisteanu’s new collection presents itself as a narrative but if so it is one of many dimensions. Split into four chapters each of 15 full-color collages bearing their own titles and brief text, Lighter Than Air could be compared to 60 throws of the yarrow stalks accompanied by as many gnomic interpretations. Rather than the chimeric figures of Hannah Hoch and Max Ernst, Oisteanu’s work recalls Robert Rauschenberg’s kaleidoscopic silkscreens or Stephen Stapleton’s acoustic surgeries—Hindu idols, Etruscan funerary figures, entomological plates, drifting body parts, zeppelins, pop culture appropriations, vintage erotica, lizards, panthers, high-heeled shoes meet in all-over compositions that collide and burst on the page. Yet even when the smallest images, eyes dominate by their implied focus as much as by their expression and guide through the maze.
A point of entry may be found in “The Uncomfortable Presence of a Fire-eater.” Five figures—a flayed male body from Grey’s Anatomy, a wooden idol bearing goggles, a late-nineteenth century lady in profile bearing an imposingly bedecked hat, and two tailors—stand above a naked woman who appears to be warding them off with her arms as she rolls away, while a large eye stares out from her vagina at the viewer. Just beyond her head is the word “BADASS.” Valery Oisteanu has published surrealist poetry for almost five decades, so a reference to Bataille’s Story of the Eye (1928) is not unexpected but nor is it a passing mention, for Bataille’s anatomical collage dramatizes the focus of his later work, Erotism (1957), which argues that eroticism is a force that puts our existence in question. And it is eroticism that is at the heart of Lighter than Air.
“Man achieves his inner experience at the instant when bursting out of the chrysalis he feels that he is tearing himself, not tearing something outside that resists him.” At its core, eroticism is the anguish and intense pleasure in transgressing the rational boundaries that preserve us from our own violence. If this tearing apart were to be sublimated into a work of art, it might well find in collage a means to express both the lure of the taboo and the calamity of its transgression. Certainly Lighter than Air’s many images of flight suggest the chrysalis has been shredded.
The frequently light-hearted aspect of the book may mislead readers into thinking that Valery Oisteanu is less than serious, but what arises in the text instead is a veiled yet intimate—and at times poignant—series of confidences. This is not a work devoted to shock-value and there are no pages without their pleasures. The erotica is distanced by time and never hard-core. Rather there are signs of interdiction: “The invisible wife said no to cavorting in the towers of doom.” But also “One had to recognize an unhappy sympathy for masturbation.” It is as if the urge for erotic release is one with an urge for destructive self-absorption wherein the figure of the woman serves as much to protect from eroticism’s dangers as a stimulus to the drive. As Valery Oisteanu has entered his 70s, his work bears a sense of mortality that finds its expression in an abundance of skulls and skeletons as well as references to the void. “The corpse was still writing letters to his long-forgotten family.”
Unlike the Parisian or San Franciscan derivations of many US surrealists, Valery Oisteanu came to the movement via Bucharest and the Romanian group. During his youth he met Gellu Naum, who after joining activities with the Paris group while studying there in the late 1930s founded a local group with Gherasim Luca, Paul Paun, and Dolfi Trost. Naum’s work had a shamanic aspect—he frequently experimented with sleep deprivation, fasting, and light deprivation—and he took on efforts to heal himself and others through poetry. Key to that effort was...