Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Infidels by Marcel Dzama

Almost nothing about the booksigning for Marcel Dzama (and Spike Jonze) at David Zwimmer Gallery seemed normal. The gallery assistants selling the books were kind and attentive (even allowed me to bring in two of my own books). They said 'Thank you' with sincerity and asked my name in case I wanted my books personalized. I wore a smile from their show of kindness.

Being early, I took some time to look at the few huge Stan Douglas prints that lined the main gallery walls when another perky assistant approached me and asked if I was there for the signing. "Oh Great!" she replied as if I had just offered to buy her a new car. She shuttled me into the back rooms of the gallery where a small arrangement of Dzama paintings were on display, "We'll be starting soon. They are still setting up. Thanks for being patient!" Patient? It was only 4:55 and the signing was scheduled to start at 5:00.

I wound up being at the head of the small line that was gathering near the darkened entranceway of one of the larger galleries - a different gallery assistant apologized for the delay (5:02) with even more sincerity than the first. It was as if the closer you got to the area of the event, you were entering into a zone of infectious childlike happiness. I was soon to discover why. Upon being allowed to enter the signing - only one or two people at a time (Lisa Kereszi was my partner) - we were met in the darkened hallway by one of Dzama's 6 foot tall snowmen and a smaller childlike figure whose paper-mache head wore no discernible emotion. These two led us into a nearly pitch black space where off in the distance you could just make out a dimly lit table upon which rested four arms holding a couple of Sharpie markers.

Marcel and Spike took their time cheerfully drawing and signing. They personalized each book by completing the drawings each other started. They told us, "If we take too long you can watch our bear," off in the corner, a bear could be made out swaying to the rhythm of the light music, a beer can rested on the floor. After several minutes of signing and chatting (about Spike's amazing slow-motion pyrotechnical intro piece to the Lakai Fully Flared skate video) and thank you's (from them) we reentered the lit world (with the snowman and child showing us the way) and saw that the line had grown to dozens.

I had imagined the signing was going to be the usual white table affair shuttled along by impatient assistants which is a rational expectation, but for an artist like Dzama who creates not just drawings and paintings but entire worlds seemingly complete with history and mythology why would I expect a booksigning to step out of that world? A new book called The Infidels from Sies + Hoke Galerie and Druck Verlag Kettler is the latest offering of his recent work.

Dzama's world is populated with an expansive cast of hooded women, military men, snowmen, monsters, tree people, bats, and deer that appear in his paintings, drawings, films, dioramas and sculptures. Its basic language is that of a primitive children's TV show - that is, if children were allowed to be exposed to violence, sexuality and the savage fantasies common to his prolific output.

His watercolor paintings often appear as choreographed panoramas of states of war. In The Infidels, his balaclava hooded women (that might remind us of a blend of Hamas and Cossacks) seduce with their sexuality and wage war while pirouetting as if in a Busby Berkeley film. Acts of violence and grace are acted out on plain fields of paper where gravity is upset and history and fantasy collide.

Throughout the work there are ties to great Dadaists like Duchamp, Picabia, and Hoch. His bizarre fetishes, sardonic political commentary and dark humor are presented in vignettes which confuse how we respond. An act of violence is waged with a smile or a victim wears an expression of nonchalance. It is hard to determine in Dzama's work who are the allies and who are the foes. One drawing will belie the alliances of another. His skewed emotional dynamics seem to hint that within the chaos of violence, everyone is to blame - victim and perpetrator alike. Mob mentality rules.

As with most of Dzama's books, The Infidels is elegant. He often combines his watercolors with pages from his sketchbooks which are stream of consciousness collage, some of which working diagrams of new characters, dioramas, and ideas. Rarely are his books simply a presentation of plates but beautifully designed works which draw you into his world through experimental forms. His book The Course of Human History Personified is half plates and an essay and half a double-sided, fold-out panormama which stretches to several feet. His book from David Zwirner from 2008 Even the Ghost of the Past is two books attached by the same covers making two entry points to the work and process.

Reducing Dzama to simple metaphors does an injustice and the work itself seems to resist such readings as much as inspire them. His dream-like scenes feel like part of a larger narrative just out of our reach as if its own history has not yet been written. With these books, Dzama is piecing together his own printed history, a record where he is free to play and create. With childlike enthusiasm I follow along, and fondly remember the day I saw a drunken bear dancing in a darkened corner.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Gone? by Robert Adams

If there is a single notion that links several of Robert Adams's recent books, it is that of walking. Of course walking with a camera slung over shoulder or around our necks is usually the case with any photographer but how many make 'the walk' felt in their pictures?

Anyone who knows Robert Adams' photographs is aware of he is a steadfast conservationist. He also seems to be a pessimist pining to turn back time so we as a world, could chart the right course in regard to our treatment of our surroundings. His new book Gone? is a walk through the landscape of his home region of Colorado made in the mid-1980s where a balance seems to have been struck between civilization and nature.

Adams starts us off within a suburban development where foliage on the tree-lined streets dwarfs the homes and cars of the residents. His vantage point is of a pedestrian, looking forward, our path clearly laid by the road ahead stretching off into the distance. On our periphery, things get our attention; an alder in a yard, some small brush scrub in an undeveloped lot, and most dramatically, the sky of a near perfect afternoon.

Within several pictures we have moved away from civilization and into the hills discovering streams and secluded spots that feel relatively untouched. Here Adams basks in the sunlight allowing his lens to be flared - a reminder that a living being is behind this point of view and not simply a recording device.

His 35mm multiple frames - sometimes slight variants of the same picture - 'walk' us through the book which is a strategy of bookmaking he explored in Listening to the River. Adams writes in a brief statement about the work, "In middle age I revisited a number of marginal but beautiful landscapes that I have taken for granted when I was a boy. As I walked through them I sometimes asked myself whether in the coming years they would survive overpopulation, corporate capitalism, and new technology. On those days when I was lucky, however, my questions fell away into the quiet and the light."

There is a comfortable loneliness about the pictures as if all one would hear is a slight breeze and the repetitive footfalls on loose soil. Towards the end of the book we return to the outskirts of town - our trance shaken but perhaps calmed by the presence of a white steepled church. The last triptych stretches the road in front of us in a straight line towards a far away tree dominating the horizon. Within the three pictures, our progress feels slowed, perhaps we are just exhausted or maybe intentionally dragging our heals perhaps to avoid the inevitable return to those disturbing questions of where we are going.

Gone? was published by Steidl and is one of three recent Adams books including Summer Nights, Walking by Aperture and Tree Line which celebrates Adams winning the 2009 Hasselblad Award.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Esopus Magazine

I don't collect magazines. I have some friends who could build houses out of dog-eared stacks of them; they could clothe their kids with the blow-ins. The only magazine I have kept and actually store happily on my bookcases somewhere between Van der Elsken and Evans is Esopus - Tod Lippy's twice annual pub that delivers all of my favorite things; original art, paper ephemera, ideas, found objects, history, and each issue is loaded with the unexpected and previously unseen.

Esopus is named for a river that originates in the Catskill Mountains and supplies much of New York City with water but unlike that tributary, Esopus is not polluted with advertisements or PR driven material. Its waters are pure, unfiltered, eclectic - the ecosystem flourishing and diverse.

The first thing one notices cracking open a copy is that it seems physically full of stuff; inserts, gate folds, pop-up sculptures, separate pull-out booklets. The paper stock varies determined by the content. The design is brilliant, often using photographs of original material presenting them as objects. Each issue comes with a CD of audio material on the inside back cover as eclectically curated as the magazine itself.

In issue two William Christenberry's Ghost Form (2004) is a gatefold within which pops-up a paper sculpture of a southern barn. Issue 4 reproduces a series of 15 rejection letters from prospective employers to an inquiry from a woman named Zola C Shirley in 1930. Issue 5 has a removable poster by Richard Misrach. Issue 9 includes long excerpts from a journal kept by a man who spent 15 months in a WWII German prison camp. Issue 11 has a section of pages from the Museum of Modern Art guestbook listing visitors famous and unknown. I could go on and on but I just realized that just picking a few things to mention is a futile exercise. Each issue has on average about a dozen contributions which range so widely that I am not really doing this justice at all.

is a non-profit organization. Each issue costs far more to produce than the 14 dollars cover price and quickly you see why. The quality and inventive presentation sets the gold standard for all magazines.

Note: I realize after photographing some spreads for my composites that they are heavily weighted to the older visual paper ephemera that Esopus has featured. Keep in mind that each issue is a range of different material, much of which is contemporary projects from recent artists.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dieter Roth Advertisements 1971/72

Dieter Roth was known to tell friends that he saw himself as primarily a writer and that creating art was simply a "pleasant means" to pay the bills. It might seem to be a tongue in cheek declaration for an artist of his stature but his Swiss passport did list his profession as "writer" first, and then "painter". From the mid-60s onward he wrote poetry, aphorisms, free associations and texts governed by their sound more than meanings. His first book of poetry published in 1966 was called Scheisse. Neue Gedichte von Dieter Roth (Shit. New Poems by Dieter Roth). It was the free-spirited 60s, but that title stood little chance to win over the literary circles of the day. His follow up volume published two years later wouldn't have either, it was called Die Gesamte Scheisse (The Complete Shit).

In the early 70s he expanded his literary aspirations by publishing aphorisms twice a week in the Anzeiger Stadt Luzern und Umgebung, a free local advertising newspaper. In an interview he remarked that those pages of ads were " brutal, they're like a gigantic junkyard. So I thought I'd just stick a little tear in them." He sent his friend Erica Ebinger in Lucerne his handwritten or typed missives which she would send along to the paper. He made it clear early into the running of the ads that the paper was not to correct his odd spellings, grammar or punctuation.

Week after week between March '71 and September '72 sentences like; "A good cry is a good night's sleep", "A tear is as mean as a kind word", Cows have served us most fillet steaks", "Fear of 13 is something", "A Coca-Cola is a stone and a tear", and "Can a being see something without being what it sees?", appeared in the paper signed with a simple D.R. The paper terminated the ad contract after running 114 of his intended 248 advertisements citing complaints by readers who were fearful that these were a sort of subversive code, and above all, they seemed to advertise nothing.

Later in '73 Roth would compile these ads using the real newspaper pages into an artist book called Das Tanenmeer (The Sea of Tears). A new book called Dieter Roth Advertisements 1971/72 has just been published by Edizioni Periferia. It reproduces Roth's aphorisms as they appeared surrounded by ads for products and services. Each is translated from German into English.