Since 2012, multidisciplinary artist Lenka Clayton has honed a distinctive method for representing and archiving the substance of her daily life. Clayton creates figurative illustrations on 8.5 x 11 inch typewriter paper using a portable 1957 Smith-Corona Skyriter typewriter, trading the hard line of a pencil, or the range of viscosities and pigments of different paints, for the finite number of signs and symbols in a set of type keys. In her most recent series of what she calls “Typewriter Drawings,” titled How we thought it would be, and how it was., and presented in an online viewing room by Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, Clayton has trained her typebars on the objects that rapidly became metonyms for the coronavirus pandemic: facemasks fashioned from old tea towels, stay-at-home haircuts, and carefully demarcated supermarket queues.
How we thought it would be, and how it was. features just over twenty “Typewriter Drawings” (all made in 2020), but Clayton has produced hundreds since she began the series nine years ago. These works display Clayton’s technical mastery of her peculiar medium, as well as her tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Visual puns abound: an illustration of a ghostly slip of paper, left blank, but for a solitary capital letter “T” in the top-left corner, is titled Abandoned To Do List 10/19/2020. Some drawings, like Air Purifier 09/28/2020, veer deftly into abstraction. The four corners of a sheet of paper are filled with constellations of type. Taken together, these clusters describe an oval of blank space in the paper’s center. Viewers will quickly realize that in this case, the glyphs represent the invisible germs which wait to infect us at every turn, while the oval represents the salubrious halo generated by an air purifier.
The fact that Clayton dates and titles her drawings using type more conventionally underscores the interpretive gymnastics the human eye and brain quietly perform just to determine when the artist is writing with type and when she is drawing with it. Stacks of zeros (or possibly letter Os) distributed in neat, vertical rows across a page are drawn into focus by the title Panic Bought Spaghetti 10/01/2020. Glass Half Full of Tears 09/12/2020—a straightforward representation of a partly finished drink on a countertop—serves as another microcosmic example of this tightrope-walk between a verbal description and visual illustration. Coupled with its title, the image expresses something ineffable about the emotional counterpoints many of us have experienced since the pandemic began: hope marred by grief; generosity constrained by self-interest. Without its epithet, Glass Half Full of Tears becomes just another still-life, albeit one astonishingly rendered by an unusually blunt instrument.
Surveying Clayton’s many typewriter illustrations, I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s “envelope poems.” Terse verses written on wisps of letter envelopes and other paper scraps, Dickinson’s poems, like Clayton’s illustrations, are shot through with wit, pathos, and resolve. Both artists possess the uncanny ability to distill an evanescent thought or feeling into something that (unlike us) might withstand the slow and immutable march of time.
What more can be made of the comparison? Dickinson and Clayton’s lyrical innovations in different forms both hint at creative processes that are simultaneously ecstatic and painstakingly deliberate. Clayton’s medium is obviously unwieldy. Although she’s had nine years of practice, it’s no doubt still challenging for her to imagine how well a parenthesis will approximate the vein of a leaf before she produces the mark (see Tea Towel Cut Up to Make Face Mask 10/25/2020). Any typos must be incorporated into the finished drawing or the piece must be scrapped. Given this slim margin of error, Clayton’s copies (at least those she exhibits) are remarkably clean.
Dickinson’s original manuscripts likewise bear some of their own palimpsestic qualities. The clearest examples of this are the lists of “variant terms” which Dickinson began writing on the margins of her texts in the early 1860s, in which she supplied several “alternatives” for any particular adjective, noun or verb in a poem. Many scholars have argued that these lists of substitutions are non-hierarchical, that no one version of the manuscript “should be regarded as ‘definitive’ or ‘final.’” Rather, they represent the impossibility of choosing one single term in a language which offers so many options. Clayton’s choices, on the other hand, decouple glyphs from their very ability to signify sonically or grammatically; they show us all the ways in which they might communicate graphically instead.
The “Typewriter Drawings” are just one manifestation of Clayton’s singular ability to engage with epistolary materials, technologies, and traditions in unexpected and unexpectedly meaningful ways. Since 2009, she and her collaborator, Michael Crowe, have been handwriting (or hand-typing) personalized letters to an astonishing number of strangers in an ongoing series titled, Mysterious Letters. Their ultimate goal, endearing in its childish absurdity, is to deliver a personal letter “to every household in the world.” One of the silver linings of this tragic year is that to some extent we’ve all become one another’s pen pals. How lucky we are that artists like Clayton have taken the time to telegraph the minutiae of their own pandemic lives to the rest of us in such creative ways.
 Mieszkowski, Jan. Crises of the Sentence. 2019. (109).
Lenka Clayton: How we thought it would be, and how it was.
Catharine Clark Gallery
December 3, 2020 – January 16, 2021