A new exhibition at the Bonita Museum & Cultural Center explores the mathematical visual poetry art movement

A poem written in the shape of a sun
Alex Caldiero’s “Monad” is an example of mathematical visual poetry.
(Bonita Museum & Cultural Center)

Ask Vallo Riberto and Kazmier Maslanka to explain what separates “mathematical visual poetry” from other text-based art movements and you’ll get any number of answers. Words like “algebraic” and “polyaesthetics” get thrown around a bit, but for both men, whose passion for the genre spans decades, they know it when they see it.

For those who haven’t seen it — or have seen it and didn’t realize it — mathematical visual poetry is a piece of art that incorporates mathematical concepts, rules or structures into a text-based work, such as a poem or other literary device. Riberto uses the phrase “conscious stream of deconstructed syntax,” and whereas a poem can be heard as well as read, mathematical visual poetry is something that relies solely on sight.

“There are two aspects of it,” explains Maslanka, a local artist who’s been working in the genre for nearly 40 years. “There’s the visual poetic side of it, where we juxtapose concepts within a visual frame and those concepts create metaphors to look at. But mathematical visual poetry uses math equations as a structure for metaphor. So I put concepts inside the variables of equations to bridge the language of mathematics — the aesthetics of mathematics — with the aesthetics of poetry and visual art.”

More succinctly, what defines mathematical visual poetry is the use of math, physics and other numeric-related fields in its conception. That’s not to say that text-heavy contemporary artists such as Jenny Holzer or Glenn Ligon don’t use mathematical concepts or designs in their practice. Rather, those artists sometimes use math as a means to reach the desired result of the work, rather than directly incorporating it into the piece from the beginning.

Cheap Thrill of Deep Sorrow by artist db Foster
(Bonita Museum & Cultural Center)

“Mathematical visual poetry is subversive in a way,” Maslanka says. “Most STEAM-related stuff is about using artists in the service of the aesthetics of science. We’re using science in the service of the aesthetics of art and poetics.” (STEAM is an acronym for “science, technology, engineering and math”)

Such is the case for the nearly two dozen artists whose work will be on display at “Rule 42: Stretched Language: Explorations Into Visual and Mathematical Poetry,” a new exhibition at the Bonita Museum & Cultural Center through December 3. For Riberto, curating an exhibition exclusively showcasing work within the mathematical visual poetry genre has been a longtime dream.

“It’s not well-known because it’s really far to the left,” says Riberto, who was first introduced to early forms of mathematical visual poetry in the ’60s after discovering The Composing Room, a group of experimental graphic artists working in New York City. “There just hasn’t been large shows showing visual poetry.”

Riberto cites Lewis Carroll (yes, the writer of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”) as being one of the first mathematical poets, referencing “The Mouse’s Tale,” Carroll’s shaped poem, as one of the first examples of the genre. Carroll’s experimentation would influence other poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and, subsequently, art schools such as the Dadaists and the Futurists. The title of the exhibition itself refers to a number of current and ancient mathematical concepts, but most directly references Carroll’s “Rule 42” in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which states “All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.”

Riberto tried over the years to find a venue to showcase works within the genre, but says most were reluctant since a lot of the work is on paper and it can be difficult to showcase them in a way that is aesthetically suitable.

“It’s very challenging. Most people when they go into look at visual art, they want a direct sensory experience,” Maslanka says. “All of this work really becomes involved in the aesthetics of analyzation and thinking. It’s challenging. People don’t generally want to be challenged. They want to walk in, and want to see something pleasurable or a spectacle.”

A poem written on a notice board
Allison Wiese’s 2021 piece, “Untitled.”
(Bonita Museum & Cultural Center)

Still, many of the works displayed in “Rule 42” are, in fact, both spectacular and cerebral. There is Alex Caldiero’s “Monad,” a poem fashioned to look like the sun, with corresponding lines of text protruding so as to resemble the sun’s rays. Alexander Kohnke uses dark paint on photographic prints to spell out “fluorescent black” in braille. Douglas McCulloh’s 2009 work, “All Recorded Wars,” is an epic, scroll-like piece that descends from the ceiling and is, according to the artist, a “chronological list of every recorded war.”

Riberto goes on to say that his original concept was to showcase the multi-decade work of Maslanka, but decided to expand it to a group exhibition for a number of reasons. First, he felt it was important to display pioneers within the mathematical visual poetry movement, such as Karl Kempton and Harry Polkinhorn. Second, Riberto also wanted to include some local artists whose work could be considered to be mathematical visual poetry or, at least, have worked within the movement’s parameters (John Dillemuth and Allison Wiese, for example).

“I loosely based the show on text-based work, as an extension of visual poetry,” says Riberto, who has previously worked with many of the artists from his time curating the Southwestern College Art Gallery. “So everyone is using text in some form or another.”

Ultimately, both Riberto and Maslanka hope that having these works on display at the Bonita Museum & Cultural Center will bring more attention to an artistic movement that Riberto says is “less celebrated,” but still very important.

“The visual poets really cling to the idea of being free in their expression, and really use text in very abstract ways,” Riberto says. “If you take a Dadaist aesthetic and give it another twist and then push it further, that’s visual poetry.”

Rule 42: Stretched Language: Explorations Into Visual and Mathematical Poetry

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Exhibition runs through through Dec. 3.

Where: Bonita Museum & Cultural Center, 4355 Bonita Road, Bonita

Phone: (619) 267-5141