My ideal Saturday afternoon might involve unending cups of tea, a rotating selection of simple but gourmet cookies, interesting art, beautiful books and stimulating conversation. This weekend, For Your Art, the hole in the wall art gallery/project space that sits across the street from LACMA supplied all of these except the tea—though coffee and tequila were reasonable substitutes.
From 11am until 8pm the space hosted a series of presentations by artists, designers and curators on the topic of art books. For the three hours that I was present, the vibe was relaxed, with presentations lasting between 15 and 45 minutes. The arrival of a new type of cookie every hour—a premise which could have been overly twee or cloying–conjured the indulgence and intimacy of artists books while conveniently keeping the audience engaged through the constant injection of sugar.
Though a cousin of the zine movement, the artist book tends to be a labored, almost fetish level product and FYA’s event highlighted the attentiveness and commitment (dare I say obsession?) that fuels this particular brand of art practice. Having collaborated on a limited edition book last year, I was just as interested to learn more about the nuts and bolts of collaborative efforts, book design and distribution as I was to explore the content of the pieces presented.
Brian Kennon, the artist behind 2nd Cannons Publications, talked about a number of his own works as well as the books by others that he has produced. I appreciated his hijacking of the catalog format to make a case for Ad Reinhardt as a herald of the zombie apocalypse, and was intrigued by the mixture of scrapbooked history and art world memoir that he created with New York based curator Bob Nickas. The pages of Bob’s anecdotes range from an artist’s advice that “people in the art world are basically sociopaths” to his own description of a Robert Smithson collage: “the earthwork as sci-fi monster movie.”
Following Kennon, came a conversation between artist William E Jones and LACMA curator Rita Gonzalez. This was my first in-depth introduction to Jones who’s conceptual and experimental work explores marginalization, often specifically in reference to American gay subculture. He discussed his Tearoom project–a film and accompanying book that re-purposes footage of men having sex in a public toilet, that was shot surreptitiously by Ohio police in 1962—as well as his book of censored WPA negatives, his tribute to decadent Roman Emperor Heliogabalus which intersperses official portraits with adverts from 70s magazine After Dark, and his footnoted parody of academic writing. I plan to consume them all.
Among others, I missed Lisa Anne Auerbach’s talk, but I was happy to discover that her project Bookshelf–a meander of a book, dedicated to the personal relationships that book lovers build with their collections–is available for download on her website.
An excerpt (K after the description refers to her decision to keep the book):
City of Quartz by Mike Davis
This seminal book about Los Angeles came out just before I moved here. Dan gave me this hardcover copy on my birthday in 1991. The inscription reads, “Happy Birthday and thank you for coming with me.” This is the first book I’d ever read about Los Angeles, and a great introduction to the area. I’ve re-read various chapters since I’ve been here, and always find something new and amazing out about the city. K
The Cyclist’s Manifesto by Robert Hurst
My father got me this book, which is really sweet. I haven’t read it. The book is subtitled “The Case for Riding on Two Wheels instead of Four” and I’m not sure I need to read that case. I’m pretty much convinced already. K
The Business of Charity: The Woman’s Exchange Movement 1832-1900 by Kathleen Waters Sander
I had never heard about this chapter of women’s labor history until I found this book. I bought it somewhere east, either Baltimore or Philadelphia, I don’t remember which. Women’s exchanges were a venue for selling hand-crafted goods on consignment. K
I found myself reading through almost all 21 pages of book descriptions and ephemera collected from within their pages, compelled by curiosity and voyeurism to hear her thoughts, see what she has read, and compare my own mental notes. I don’t know Lisa Anne well, but I admire her work and I adopted my cat from her, so I am probably at just the right distance to devour her bite-size reviews. I don’t know if a complete stranger would be interested.
This event at FYA was a town hall meeting of the local art world nerds: people who slave away on books that will have tiny audiences and make negligible profits, at best. So what is the appeal? As Lisa Anne’s book demonstrates, one strength of the artist’s book is that a limited edition or cheaply produced object only needs to appeal to an enthusiastic niche audience. I am drawn to the medium because art books are handheld art objects that get multiple private viewings. Making a book can enable an artist to write their own version of history or to engage in a form of institutional critique. To create and distribute a book doesn’t need approval from any higher power so the work can be irreverent, playful, pornographic, confusing, extremely personal–anything goes. The artist can have complete control.
I hope we see more events like this and that more artists explore the medium; it is fertile ground and there is plenty of room for newcomers. Join the art nerds! We have cookies.