BOOK REVIEWS: Spring Reading

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“My Ogre Book, Shadow Theater, Midnight”
Marcel Broodthaers, (Siglio Press)

Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers managed to excavate a unique poetic space within the realm of institutional critique, in a voice that was at once facile and sincere, and distinctly his own. Best known for his project Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles) from 1968-1973, he helped set the stage for installation art. Rooted in a fascination with text, film and collage, blending words, found images and objects with a healthy dose of Surrealism, he was at once of his time and so ahead of it that it is easy to forget that he died in 1976. This winter (through May 15, 2016), the actual Museum of Modern Art in New York is giving the under-recognized artist his due with a much-anticipated retrospective. The modest but lovely book “My Ogre Book, Shadow Theater, Midnight,” by LA’s Siglio Press, is not meant to be a substitute for that sprawling exhibition, but can be savored on its own terms. The tidy hardbound volume gathers three bodies of work: two sets of Broodthaers’ poems (until 1964, he was primarily a poet), and “Shadow Theater,” a set of 80 slide images from 1973-74, that he used in his Projections. Drawing from such disparate sources as comic books, old prints, hand shadows, and snippets of text, (the found images veering from spewing volcanoes and other menacing natural phenomena to war, astronomy and scientific observation), the series is both haunting and amusing, and obliquely reflects themes from the earlier poems. Set together, they read like a cryptic storybook fable for adults, steeped in an almost Victorian sense of etiquette. Considering his interest in staking out a new vocabulary between idea and image, between cinematic and aesthetic space, the volume gives a nifty glimpse into the making of this influential artist’s singular perceptual alphabet. -GM

“Both Sides of Sunset: Photographing Los Angeles”
Edited by Jane Brown and Marla Hamburg Kennedy, (Metropolis Books)

Los Angeles is a city that seems often defined by its elusiveness. Beyond the iconic sites that beckon tourists, it fragments into a kaleidoscope of unlikely juxtapositions-a mirage of promise endlessly receding into a parade of palm trees and ticky-tack, studios and mini-malls, sunshine and noir, glitz and glare. “Both Sides of Sunset: Photographing Los Angeles” thus defies expectations in capturing the texture of this vast suburban metropolis. Edited by Jane Brown and Marla Hamburg Kennedy, its ample pages feature imagery from over 125 photographers of diverse styles (and generations), along with knowing essays by artist Ed Ruscha, who once chronicled every building on the Sunset Strip, and writer David L. Ulin, “to evoke LA in all its contradictory glory.” LA is a city of a thousand different neighborhoods and moods, and the book wisely echoes that non-hierarchical layout. The early years are evoked by figures such as Julius Shulman, Marvin Rand, Denise Scott Brown, and Dennis Hopper, while contemporary artists such as Zoe Crosher, Todd Hido, Mark Ruwedel, and Amir Zaki lend their own eerie spin to today’s familiar vistas. We get acrid street riots and desolate palaces. Garage doors by John Divola, signage by John Humble. A patterned concrete wall by James Welling. A wizened Chet Baker, a glowing Eva Mendes; Venice beach bums and Hollywood wanna-bes. Trees grasping at sunlight in various improbable forms. Whether it’s a lone cougar stalking the Hollywood Hills, or the 1967 picture of Dr. Zaius from “Planet of the Apes” seated at a bus stop amid Googie architecture with a looming rocket and a giant donut, the volume palpably documents the banal but haunting Surrealism that permeates this Southern California dream capital. By the time the city recedes into the smog at the book’s end, numerous shots will linger long afterward. -GM

Catherine Opie: “700 Nimes Road”
(Delmonico Books/Prestel)

There’s a hint of voyeurism à la “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” and the slightly self-conscious tenor of an ultra-cool Instagram feed in Catherine Opie’s new book-129 sumptuous full-page plates set in a simple, clean design in which all the lavishness is reserved for the contents of images themselves. Which is to say, all the contents of Elizabeth Taylor’s house. It is an exercise in portraiture by other means, what Hilton Als calls in his essay for the book, “totems to aura.” Taylor died mid-way through the six-month project; the women never met. Inspired by William Eggleston’s Graceland photos taken a few years after the singer’s death, Opie’s premise was straightforward: to create an intimate, accurate portrait of a person through their home and possessions. As a portraitist, the iconically frank style Opie favors doesn’t work quite as well without a physiognomy to read; and despite the close-ups, tilt shifts, and the play of texture and ambient light, a book like this will always feel like an inventory. Yet there’s a resonant personal charm to these intuitively culled details: pink satin pillows, Michael Jackson’s photo on a bedside table, Taylor’s Warhol portrait, scarves, purses, Oscars. An array of kitsch and elegance, random souvenirs and ballet shoes; endless white shag carpet and lights in the trees, and so very, very many diamonds. Selections are on view at MOCA/PDC through May 8, but as far more than a catalogue, this project lends itself to book form, where it can be seen in its entirety and less dramatic images can create an atmosphere of nuance. As Ingrid Sischy notes in her essay, there is no hierarchy among objects on either Taylor or Opie’s part; enacting what Opie calls “a democracy of glamour.” In other words, it looked like anyone’s house would, after being lived in for decades-which is ultimately the humanistic and conceptual success of the project. It’s just that Taylor’s stuff was better. -SND

“George Herms: The River Book”
(Hamilton Press)

One of the most seminal California assemblage artists, George Herms is known as much for his persona as for any specific artworks. To a younger generation, he may be best recognized as that older, beatnik-type dude who does outlandish musical performances; in 2011, invited to help usher in the six-month panoply of Getty-sponsored PST exhibitions, Herms ascended the stage with cardboard guitar, chimes and horn to lend his oracular invocation. So a rediscovery of Herms is probably past due. The hefty two-volume set titled “George Herms: The River Book,” published by Hamilton Press, amply fits the bill. Comprehensive in scope and handsomely produced, with a fond intro essay by Dave Hickey, no less, the slip-cased, hardbound set offers an immersion into Herms’ world. The plentiful B&W and color images of Herms’ works are a revelation, accentuating their every scavenged nuance and frayed surface. Although sculptural in form, Hickey places Herms’ oeuvre at the junction of jazz and poetry; curator Walter Hopps put him in league with Schwitters and Duchamp. But it is the wealth of personal, archival imagery that sets the project apart. Friends and at times collaborators with Wallac
e Berman, Robert Alexander, Diane di Prima, poet Michael McClure, dancer Fred Herko, and others, Herms traversed California from San Francisco and Larkspur up north, to Hermosa Beach and Topanga Canyon down south, bringing his Beat sensibility to LA. The trove of photos presents Herms in his Pan-like element, amid burbling streams and tall grasses, among playful friends and shaggy kids and pregnant lovers, offering a window into the lifestyle that engendered his creative muse. As Hickey notes, Herms remains “a willing participant in that fraternity of kindred spirits and poetic optimists whose ebullience has defined ground zero for artists in California for the last half century.” That California, too, has long since lost its innocence, but for a few True Believers like Herms; this lovingly assembled tribute makes the case for its staying power. -GM