Sign Language: A Painter's Notebook (Three Rooms Press, 2014) pays homage to the lost art of urban outdoor sign painting, in photos, drawings and words. A mashup of angular skylines, unusual people and unique pockets of the world’s greatest city, woven with poems detailing the danger, fear, and freedom in soaring heights. The author/photographer creates an immersion into a rarified world of danger and beauty, that raises the sense of the importance of moments, and blurs the boundary between public and private space
Although John Paul's new book, Sign Language is largely a collection of poems, it is important to keep in mind from the outset that John Paul is primarily a painter. A painter of lush narrative canvases, portrait sketches, and genre scenes, as well as a painter of billboards and movie scenery, and with language, he is a limner of a life lived in New York City. Few painters have the range that Paul has, and fewer still possess the economy of language combined with the rich visual textures that give his poetry the feel of a documentary. One is tempted to compare his work to Dos Passos, or maybe Ferlinghetti, while at the same time the cinematic drama and pathos of Hertzog comes to mind.
That these stories are collected under the title Sign Language has its own sense of poetry. Sign language uses gesture and physicality to replace speech and sound. Much like semaphore, it is a language that abstracts the spoken word. In essence, what joins together the work of Paul is his use of image and written word; the narratives of his paintings are often oblique, but his poetry nails down small moments -- tiny gestures -- with precision.
Music is a factor in Paul’s work. When he talks about it he illuminates a great deal about his philosophy of art. "Music? That's a hobby, and if it ever gets into my work like it did for RomareBearden, that would be natural. To play jazz means to wade or swim in a stream of heroes. There are no more exemplary artists than the players and composers of modern music. If you know a tune well enough to improvise, you have an inner reference and calm much like dreaming. Take that to the next level? Perform with others? You have to want that like the footballer wants to score a goal. It's another language structure -- free but with rules. You need to know the rules. I'll always be a beginner as a tenor sax player, so I concentrate on tone and sound.” Tone and sound, like texture or light are the poetry of the abstract. Chance, accident, happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: these are the things that make life interesting.
Cormac McCarthy wrote, "If it doesn’t concern life and death, it's not interesting." Paul's poems, such as "Cubism Today," a meditation on a lunch break on a busy workday, lend some credibility to that notion. For what are lives lived, or measured by, if not by hundreds of bowls of mussels, thousands of cigarettes, countless glasses of wine, untold empty Bud bottles, and uncountable sandwiches eaten while leaning against a scaffold on a hot sidewalk? Paul documents the variety to be found in the overlooked, and this is what a painter does. His narratives are simple, concise stories from a man who practices his art both in public (sign writing) and private (painting), all the while keeping track of the moments when these activities happened.
Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," but an unlived life is not worth examining. Paul has managed a high wire act, both exploring and documenting his existence with grace and poetry, and, like a good tightrope walker, has done it without a net. - Bradley Rubenstein
Sign Language is available at Three Rooms Press.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.