The River we Stepped in Twice

An exhibition by artists Pete Smith and Lola Bunting at London’s Avivson Gallery

Review by Antony John

Pete Smith’s ‘Yellow Poems’ (Nos. 1-19, 2009-2018) are made from words removed from National Geographic magazine and pasted onto a background of horizontal yellow strips which are themselves cut from that magazine’s famous front-cover border. All Smith’s works in the show (Nos. 4, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13) share the dimensions of the magazine. 

The direct use of printed matter in art was pioneered by Cubists and Dadaists in the early 20th century. Tristan Tzara issued his famous instructions on making a poem by pulling words from a bag. In the 1970s, John Wieners used cut newspapers in his work, and more recently poets Nat Raha, Aine Belton and the current author have made poems out of appropriated images and text. Pete Smith cites Oulipo writers and the cut-up experiments of William Burroughs as particular inspirations.

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Smith’s poems are strikingly visual. The composition of the yellow background is important to Smith, who is also a painter of abstract art. The strips are carefully selected from magazines from various eras (constructing each poem can take two to three years). The yellow used has become ‘more deeply saturated’ in recent decades, he says. Similarly the lines themselves can derive from magazines many years apart, evidenced by different fonts. They seem to float in front of the yellow field, creating a space or gap between the lines and the background that resembles the gap between the words’ original meaning and their new use in the poems. 

The sequence becomes ‘more deliberate and in some cases darker’ as it progresses, Smith says. The poems range from absurdist dialogue, to aphorisms (‘Home is a Bouquet of flames, mistaken for roses‘, No. 7), to pseudo-poeticisms (‘A heart the size of a labyrinth is shaped like a pomegranate. / Carrying a cargo of love’). No. 13 is a bizarre list-poem that morphs into a gag. There are the weird juxtapositions, non sequiturs and evocative dream-like descriptions (‘sun-drenched courtesans turn cartwheels / in a Cathedral of splintered moonlight’, No.8) characteristic of cut-ups.


Loss and forgetting are themes in Lola Bunting’s ‘a slow descent’ series (2015-2018) shown here. She has photographed images of mountain rocks - some constructed from model railway scenery - and manipulated these manually to produce odd flattened, folded or curled-up images. The best of these lose their character against an ambiguous grey background that seems to represent the very absence of landscape. 

Bunting says her group of works ‘speaks of the limitations involved in the act of remembering and of the shaping of memory in the space between what is lost and the traces left behind. The necessity to forget is what defines our memories’. She explains her photographs in terms of an attempt to recall a forgotten journey where ‘Planes of paper and simple three-dimensional forms become substitutes for elements within the landscape and are arranged alongside images of “real” or constructed landscapes, which in turn come to stand for an idealised and symbolic place.’

These artists show how both language and image can be reconstructed to resemble itself, and how such a process creates something new and startling when some essential quality is subtracted. 

The exhibition, curated by David Connearn, runs until 25 September 2018 at the Avivson Gallery, 49 Highgate High Street, London N6 5JX.

Gallery Website:

Lola Bunting: