As an undergrad at the Rhode Island School of Design, Mark Booth tried to write poetry after smoking pot for the first time, and all his Rs came out backward. His mom told him he’d been diagnosed with mild dyslexia as a child, and that’s why he’d been in a special reading group in first grade. Booth recalled being given sheets of paper that were half lined and half blank so he could draw a picture, then write a little story underneath. “I’ve always felt somewhat outside of words, a little on the periphery of language,” he says. Yet ever since that time, when he remembers making his first serious efforts to draw, his creative projects have involved language, whether he was making comic books as a kid or improvising music, as he does today in the local band Tiny Hairs.

The 50-some untitled paintings and drawings in his show at Bodybuilder & Sportsman (which also includes three of his sound pieces) all place sentences or phrases in biomorphic balloons. The provocative texts often allude to the body, and their juxtapositions can be so weird and incongruous that logical explanations fail. In one piece, the balloon items include “by the dew covered genitals of our lord,” “the obstacle to our happiness lay malevolently on the floor boards in a halo of its own fluids,” and “I choose pink.” Accompanying these words is a tangle of lines resembling hair.

Booth used to hang out at the Philadelphia ad agency where his dad worked as a comptroller partly, he says, because “they’d let me sit in an unused office and draw all day.” His father also wanted him to be around people who were making a living at art, though Booth remembers thinking that one guy working on elaborate hand-drawn fonts was doing something totally insane: “I couldn’t imagine how anyone could do it because it was so precise.” Later he developed his own interest in hand-lettered texts. Booth liked what he calls the “organic geometry” of the ad agency’s modernist furniture, which included an Eero Saarinen conference table, and when he visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art in his early teens he immediately appreciated the abstracted, curved lines of Brancusi’s sculptures. He also fell in love with Duchamp, admiring his indirectness, which reminded him of work he already loved: the drawings of Edward Gorey. Both artists imply more than they show, he says.

Living in Boston after college, Booth began to write experimental poetry and continued to make drawings that combined text with abstract forms. In 1993 he moved here for graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute. He began making sound art and discovered the writings of Raymond Roussel and Georges Perec, who challenged themselves with linguistic games. Shortly after receiving his MFA in 1995, Booth began a long piece for eight voices with music that he’s finishing up this year. Inspired by a 1602 painting, Juan Sanchez Cotan’s still life Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, its text is an inventory of seen items, many of them composite animals: an elephant-headed horse, a tiger with tentacles.

Some pieces in the show seem to reflect on American culture, including one that apparently alludes to weather reporting. Among its texts are “The weatherman practiced expressions of uncertainty,” “The rain falls later perhaps,” and “x ray newscast.” Booth says that he sees television news as “such a fabrication, such theater,” and he hoped showing it in what he calls X-ray form (there are also balloons reading “cloud forms” and “hoar frost”) might both “humanize the newscasters and make them more surreal.”

The earliest pieces here date from a year Booth spent abroad: in 2003 he and his wife moved to Copenhagen because she got a Fulbright to study the implementation of wind power in Denmark. Though at the time he’d mostly stopped drawing and painting in favor of text and sound work, he began drawing again because it would have been awkward to paint in their small apartment. He found the country very different from ours, more humane and progressive: “It was amazing to be in a city reliant on the bike, and in a culture that has really great social services.” It was the first time he’d been out of the United States for more than a month, and though he made plenty of friends among Danish artists, he also spent a lot of time alone. Many of the texts he wrote then “came out of the voices that were running through my mind. By having a little quiet time, I was able to be more cognizant of this feeling of aggression that underlies the American experience. I also became more aware of the other voices we hear every day–the insipid and ridiculous TV news, these parasitical voices that enter into one’s consciousness.”

Mark Booth

Where: Bodybuilder & Sportsman, 119 N. Peoria

When: Through July 9

Info: 312-492-7261

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.