New York

Rammellzee

Gallozzi-LaPlaca Gallery/Stellweg-Séguy Gallery

Ralph Waldo Emerson considered hieroglyphs, Ezra Pound went back to pictograms, William Burroughs rethought collage. Periodically, theorists have proclaimed their dissatisfaction with tainted language, dreaming instead of an ideal storm of communication that would heal the breach between visual and verbal. Perhaps the myth is indivisible from the entire project of American Modernism: to locate a concept of the avant-garde within the myth of the Fall, promoting a fiction of the embattled artist as Adamic exile. Restoring the communication system of a supposed prelapsarian age underlies Rammellzee’s thinking also. He traces the tribulations of “the letter” back to 1582, when bishops finally stopped monks from practicing calligraphy, and before that to ninth-century Constantinople and its iconoclasts. Because language has taken control, he says, order can be wrested back only by restoring the freedom the letter possessed in a time when it leant toward pure abstraction. In New York that process has already begun; the monks preserved the letter by consigning it to Hell, so it led a truly underground existence for centuries before its rediscovery by subway graffiti writers, who now form themselves into sects in order to guard its power.

Rammellzee is a master writer, the recently appointed head of the Death Squad, a writing gang based in the Bronx. In the “style wars” between rival groups his position is clear: he believes that an early period of emotional spraying is at an end, and that an era of consolidation is under way. By theory and example he teaches a “corrected” Wild Style, devising variants in rich profusion—Gothic Futurism, lkonoklast Panzerism, Future Futurism, Ransom Note, Bands of Steel, Luxturnomere. The impetus is rather, perhaps, the advantages to be derived from the sheer momentum of change than anything else. (More of an attitude than a single style, Ikonoklast Panzerism assumes the equivalent role of post-Modernism in the artist’s work, embracing his subsequent decisions.) So dense that they are almost unreadable, Rammellzee’s treatises on style and language provide no easy route to his theorizing; they combine Charles Fourier-like counting mania with references to mathematics and quantum mechanics, apparently taking it for granted that any rule can be altered at any time, even by its own inventor. The heart of Rammellzee’s work is action and talk, its motive derived from the head-on confrontation between a rich Shakespearean looseness of expression and the rigors of the dictionary. Assuming the entire order of things to be misguided because of the adventures of the letter, Rammellzee must use both. A running motif is his desire to crack closed systems such as games and definitions, to operate outside them. They litter his thought, drifting stranded and empty in some other, lesser dimension.

“Regicide,” “iconoclasm,” “mordent” (a grace note in music), “Kill,” “English,” “homicide,” “-ide,” “suicide.” Trapped under resin, framed in a shallow box, are dictionary pages with single words ringed in blue. Death, accident, premeditation, language, music, puns on “death” and “biting” (the Italian root of “mordent”), beauty and pain, appropriation and stealth. . . . Ransom Note "Homicide to Regicide; The Attack of the Bomber’s Dark Lance Corridors” is a frozen collage in red and gold, the colors of heraldry. Rammellzee’s constructions relate more to his assumed personas as nobleman and lawgiver, sorcerer and assassin, than to autobiography proper. Hardened resin, sometimes buckling and cracking, contains plans and objects, cut paper, and floating color, and over as well as through it is his faultless, near-oriental calligraphy. The frames are part of the works too, and three-dimensional objects protrude from the resin.

Whether Rammellzee’s art relates to his philosophy as a sport or as a repository of knowledge, it is meant for a divided audience. Locked doors, boxes within other boxes, even secret works hidden behind more public ones—all acknowledge the problem. Gazing into the depths of a sculpture we discover the face of the artist gazing back, omniscient but elusive, a confidence man with a sinister turn of phrase and a penchant for masquerade. His art is double-headed, both sordid and exquisite, blatant and yet elitist. For Rammellzee, plotting the overthrow of a culture he despises demands the formation of an avant-garde in its original sense. After planning to armor the letter, he now plans to protect certain sequences of musical notes; and the Luxturnomere style broaches problems Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky faced, of the relation of music to abstract art. Like teaching aids for disciples, the boxes that make up The Nine Cases of Assassination open to reveal collages demonstrating the artist’s nine main letter styles, each suggesting a different audience for that style, while those in The Private Collection of the Magistrate operate like triptychs, opening to display the letters of the word “magistrate,” surrounded by whirling planets and explosions in space, somewhere beyond human control or measurement. Fantasies that could irritate every one of his nine audiences, these are clandestine dreams of the outer limits of a law-giver’s main metaphor: cultural revolution expressed in terms of military strategy. “There is no word radical there is no word ratio,” Rammellzee writes near the end of his Treatise on the Luxturnomere, maybe only half persuaded.

The hardest fights to win are fights against invisible, accepted forces. Emerson, Pound, Burroughs are poets, not simply scholars with linguistic axes to grind. The imaginative leaps in Rammellzee’s theories make them nonsensical, and it is easy to imagine the accusations of irrelevance leveled at him by people tolerant of Emerson’s Over-Soul or Pound’s economics or Burroughs’ fantasies of men giving birth to children. The disturbing thing is that Rammellzee seems to know this, and to need no defense. “Everything cometh to he who waiteth,” reads a quotation on a piece of paper embedded in one of his pieces. Being dismissed by an audience whose concept of “sense” he opposes will never hurt him. He knows more than they do, and will watch and wait.

Stuart Morgan