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Bar Talk: Eric Johnt’s Work at the Arts Enrichment Program of Buffalo

Scott and Zelda by Eric Johnt

An exhibit by Eric Johnt at the Arts Enrichment Program of Buffalo gallery (466 Amherst Street) consists of visual artworks and poetry, presented in readings and in Johnt’s newly published book, Something’s Brewing, which includes reduced size versions of the visual art as illustrations.

The poetry and art are much of a piece, evincing above all anger, lashing out in multiple directions, at multiple targets. But more subtly, unresolved internal conflicts. Bar talk, heavy on generalities, light on specifics or solutions to the universal problems of hypocrisy and self-serving in high places, and lip service paid to the poor and powerless. And more than a dollop of self-pity. “The maligned Eric Johnt” is a recurrent phrase, in the poetry and in text elements in the visual art.

Alcohol is a theme. And ambivalence a strategy, whether conscious or unconscious. In the poetry, and about the import of the imagery in the visual works, which include crowded collages of images of all sorts, including much carnage. War and its devastations. Where there is color, it is often blood red. And some spidery drawings, labyrinths within which the artist seems to be caught and can’t escape. Trapped in a psychic maze of his own making.

Serious ambivalence about alcohol. One poem is remorsefully (but inadequately, it seems) apologetic about an apparently fatal drunk driving accident, but is surrounded by poems displaying braggadocio about the drinker’s ability to drink but not get drunk, and justification for drinking based on the poet’s voluminous productivity while half in bag, together with the rude world’s lack of appreciation of his poetic sensibility.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is a recurrent image in the collages. As a literary hero? As a drunk? As both at the same time, it would seem. (But F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t good because he drank. He was good for a while, despite the drinking, until the drinking destroyed him completely.)

Lieutenant Calley shows up prominently in one of the artworks. Looking spiffy, in dress uniform. Almost like a stand-up guy. But what’s the message? As a hero in light of the hyprocrisy surrounding his case, being charged with crimes others probably committed, too, and got off scot-free? Which doesn’t mean his crimes were okay. Only that the justice system failed in the case of the others. The injustice was not to Calley, but to the ones that weren’t prosecuted.

In the matter of generalities (versus specifics), his conclusion (and by and large analysis) as to the trickle-down economic down theory is “Fuck the Trickle Down Theory!” The sentiment seems right and proper enough, but the statement is hardly an argument. But elsewhere he explains, “It’s hard for me to understand/global economics because it bores me stiff.”

All in all, much persona here. Sometimes of the black rapper (but Johnt isn’t a black rapper). Sometimes of a poet who claims to hate poetry and to have been trying for years to escape its thrall (but I don’t believe it). Moreover, writing poetry but not liking it is like discoursing on global economics but being bored by the subject.

A persona is a mask, literally and figuratively. Necessary in dramatic poetry, problematic to fatal in lyric poetry. The artist needs to come out from behind the persona and show his face.

The Eric Johnt exhibit continues through July 8.

jack foran