Juke Joint: They'll never know how beautiful they are, frozen in this moment in time. And written on the upper left wall: 2 Kool 2 be 4gotten
What would the holidays be without those huge art and photography books, the cost of which are sometimes the monetary equivalent to a couple of days' pay? Does anyone really read these hefty, glossy, sometimes arcane texts? More importantly, do these weighty tomes serve much purpose beyond decorating coffee tables and bookshelves, and relieving the gift void on your list?
Obviously, these books are designed as visual treats, most are intended as gifts for people who would not likely buy them otherwise. That most of them are published to coincide with the gift-giving holidays is a clear indicator that they are intended to get the most for your Big Book Buck. But if the gift book is successful as a present, the recipient may find the doorway into another universe, another culture, into the past, or into the future. Each book truly represents a vision, and it's astonishing to see just how clear-eyed as well as myopic our worlds can be.
A friend once remarked to me that he was inclined toward the French Impressionists because that's what the world he lived in looked like before he got glasses. In Impressionists Side by Side: Their Friendships, Rivalries, and Artistic Exchanges by Barbara Ehlrich Wright (Knopf, $65 hard), a less-blurred view exhaustively examines the various relationships between Degas, Manet, Monet, Cassatt, Pissarro, Morisot, Renoir, and Cézanne. More than just contemporaries, these artists had intense professional and personal interactions that were reflected in their individual works, sometime with remarkable clarity and influence. Author Wright is the Adjunct Professor of Art History at Tufts University, so the tone is unsurprisingly academic but it is also rich in ideas and theories, and Wright's ability to weave the intimate nature of these artists' creative minds into their public offerings is fascinating. The hundreds of illustrations and paintings, full-color reproductions, and little-seen pencil sketches make for endless viewing and the text provides layers of thought.
Small wonder then that Paint: A Manual of Pictorial Thought and Practical Advice by Jeffrey Camp (Dorling Kindersley, $29.95 hard) also caught my eye. Just looking at the bright, color-saturated cover made me smile. Inside is a non-pedantic look at the art of painting, more of a guided tour of techniques and methods employed in the myriad styles of the 1,000-plus illustrations than a recitation of artists and works. Not just a crash course in art styles, the friendly presentation of the book encourages artistic expression and pursuit from the reader, a welcome change from the works of the masters that we the mortals will never match.
I wished that material swatches had been included here, so luxurious is Classic Fabrics by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill (Rizzoli, $24.95 hard). More than 200 color photographs flow throughout this handsome volume bring to mind phrases like "gracious living" and "the rich really are different from you and I." Indeed, the author's pedigree affords her the credentials to regale us with page after page of scrumptious fabrics in every aspect of decorating possible with just the right air of privilege. From the rich brocades and velvets chosen for upper-class bedrooms to the fine points of embroidery -- distinguishing between forms of needlework, for example -- Spencer-Churchill deftly avoids the kind of snobby text in which you automatically hum the theme from Masterpiece Theatre, and instead suggests the impetuous classical suite from those DeBeers Diamond commercials. I kept touching the pages, hoping the cool, colorful slickness would turn to the soft nap of velveteen but alas, it did not.
From Classic Guitars of the '50s
Leave it to National Geographic to put it all into perspective: Humans are one of about 1.75 million species that have been identified by science. There -- now worry about who takes out the garbage! Actually that sobering sentence is from the introduction of The Company We Keep: America's Endangered Species by Douglas H. Chadwick and Joel Sartore (National Geographic Society, $27.50 hard) and with typically seductive National Geographic style it sucked me into its verdant and sometimes startling photographs of threatened birds, endangered plant life, rare insects, and human scourge and plunder. Its non-political but clearly concerned text makes it a thoughtful read, as issues pertaining to extinction are delineated from the notion of survival of the fittest. It's such a cliché to say this, but it really is funny how an enlargement of a microscopic leaf can so easily instill a sense of humility. From the bird's eye to the man in the moon -- or at least those who went to the moon -- that same speck-in-the-universe feeling persists throughout Orbit: NASA Astronauts Photograph the Earth by Jay Apt, Michael Helfert, and Justin Wilkinson (National Geographic Society, $40 hard). 1994 Endeavour astronaut Jay Apt collaborated with geographer Justin Wilkinson and UT alumnus Michael Helfert, chief scientist for 18 Space Shuttle missions, on this visually stunning offering. The swirling eyes of typhoons and hurricanes, coastlines that resemble colors of liquid paint marbled together, islands that might be mushroom caps in a field, patchwork quilts of farmland, forest land looking like microchip circuitry... Orbit's ability to tickle the imagination is endless.
Certainly pop culture has benefited from the boon in art and photo books. With a title like Star Trek -- Where No One Has Gone Before: A History in Pictures text by J.M. Dillard, introduction by William Shatner (Pocket Books, $25 paper), little explanation should be needed except to note that Trekkie cultists are an incredibly hardy breed, gobbling up the reams of paperbacks and specialty books on their beloved television programs and movies. Meanwhile, for those who still can't get enough Trek, Star Trek is chock-full of pictures of Jim, Spock, Picard, Janeway, the Federation Council, scenes from the movies, and the U.S.S. Enterprise. Should be good for a little of that Vulcan Death Grip from your favorite alien lover.
It was amusing to read the introduction to The Art of The New Yorker 1925-1995 by Lee Lorenz (Knopf, $25 paper) about the 70-year-old publication -- its sentiment was remarkably like a review I wrote several years ago about another collection of New Yorker cartoons. This is not to suggest that Lorenz fleeced me, of course -- merely to say that the magazine was unusually pervasive in influencing the sense of humor of children whose parents subscribed to it. The New Yorker's East Coast sensibility can be viewed as elitist, but I prefer to enjoy it for its incisive examinations of a city I only visit but which has a profound influence on my life. More than any other magazine, The New Yorker has always reveled in the quirks of the city. Lorenz traces the life of the magazine using publisher Harold W. Ross as the link from turn-of-the-century publications like Judge and Vanity Fair into the New Yorker. It's also interesting to see how the period work of an artist like Miguel Covarrubias in those days is clearly an influence on a contemporary master caricaturist like Al Hirschfield.
What The Art of the New Yorker does best is to offer glimpses at the personalities behind the cartoons, too, particularly revealing the witty Helen Hokinson, whose series of East Coast matrons employs the most subtle humor a cartoon can express; Peter Arno, whose bold, spare lines radiated privileged whimsey; Mary Petty and her Walter Mitty-ish parlor maid; and James Thurber, whose brilliance I should not have to explain. The inclusion of inter-offices memos concerning captions, commentary on Eustace Tilley (you know -- the New Yorker guy) and the like only adds to its cachet.
The editor and founder of Wired magazine also enter the market this year with Mind Grenades: Manifestos From the Future, designed and edited by John Plunkett and Louis Rossetto (Hardwired, $32.95 paper). If its fluorescent cover doesn't get you, then the opening salvo of their introduction should: The medium, or process, of our time -- electronic technology -- is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and reevaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution taken for granted. Everything is changing... you, your education, your family, your job, your government, your relation to "the others." And they're changing dramatically.
Of course those words are not theirs -- it is the first paragraph written by Wired patron saint Marshall McLuhan in 1967 in The Medium Is the Massage, words from which Plunkett and Rossetto take their philosophical cue. Wired regularly features "manifestos" -- thoughts and ideas expressions that are interpreted visually and graphically by artists in this ultimately fascinating stream-of-cyber-consciousness collection of quotes illustrated with avant style, arresting design, and esoteric photos. Sometime the presentations are so edgy as to be sharp and cold but the message of this medium is unmistakable.
Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb's humor is rife with tasty nuggests of common sense and wry water-cooler philosophy
And when it comes to pop culture, American Splendor Presents Bob & Harv's Comics, stories by Harvey Pekar, Art by Robert Crumb (Four Walls Eight Windows, $16 paper) comes with a two-thumbs-up, unqualified recommendation: buy this book! C'mon... do you really need an introduction to this? Harvey Pekar is our favorite curmudgeon, having plied his morose cynicism through the pages of the American Splendor comic book series since 1976. And yes, Bob & Harv's Comics is Pekar's bleak view of the world from his obsessive collecting of jazz records to the day job he's maintained all these years as a file clerk for the veteran's hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, aptly illustrated by the utterly and completely brilliant Robert Crumb. Many of the strips within reflect that day-to-day life, to the point where these are less stories than vignettes. I love these little vignettes, though, crafted like expensive chocolates, each one individually decorated with its own design and flavor. Of course, that box-of-chocolates allusion has its drawbacks. Some of them are too full of nuts for my liking but it's the strips where the humor runs rich and rife with tasty nuggets of common sense and wry water-cooler philosophy that stick with me.
Outrageous only mildly describes the contents of Jerome: After the Pageant by Thomas Avena and Adam Klein (Bastard Books/DAP $32.95 hard). Is this outsider art? Yes, in a sense -- and its overt, twisted, homosexual themes are in no way subdued. Between photographs of artist Jerome Caja himself in ultra-drag, are his paintings and artworks, childhood fantasies steeped in a dark world of artistic perversion that is slightly to the left of Robert Mapplethorpe. I'm not saying this is bad, I'm just saying that depictions of Alice in Wonderland jacking off the White Rabbit, Jesus in the middle of a circle jerk, and Bozo-masked priests having sex with little boys is not a readily recommendable book for the general public. Better to know that Caja is, oh yes, a screaming queen in San Fran, natch, and has had to answer for his artistic "sins" on several occasions already, though I deeply admire his use of nail polish and eyeliner for artistic mediums. I do have to say though, that to simply artistically produce a subject designed to shock, as these penis-themed works are, rarely gets as much pure shock-value as is hoped for. Better that I found paintings such as Black Madonna genuinely touching, and am content to leave reactions to Bozo Fucks Death to those who feel the need to scream "obscenity."
I swooned over the rosewood armoires, dangly crystal chandeliers, rich tapestry curtains, and burgundy velvet couches while watching Louis Malle's Pretty Baby. "Bordello chic. That's what you like," snorted my husband. Uh, okay... maybe he was right. But I grew up in New Orleans, where street cars rolled lazily in front of Garden District mansions on St. Charles Avenue and Mardi Gras was just a way of life in the Big Easy. The look of the city is intertwined with that turn-of-the-century style -- the Columns Hotel where many of the interiors of Pretty Baby were filmed still cultivates that look.
Bellocq's vision of New Orleans' working girls captures them with grace and respect but does not gloss over or cosmetize them
Pretty Baby, aside from its controversial pre-pubescent Brooke Shields nude scene, was a fictionalized account of photographer E.J. Bellocq, whose fascination with the prostitutes of Storyville around 1912 led him to use them as models. Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, The Red Light District of New Orleans, reproduced from prints made by Lee Friedlander, introduction by Susan Sontag, text by John Szarkowski (Random House, $40 hard) is a true account in photos and words. In Malle's film, Keith Carradine plays the photographer as obsessed with the prostitutes as the pursuit of his art, though it does not portray his real-life misshapen physical appearance. (In that sense, he seems to have a connection with another artist whose physical limitations drew him to prostitutes -- Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.) First of all, the pictures are unforgettable, writes Susan Sontag in the introduction, and it is hard to get much beyond that. Bellocq's vision of the working girls captures them with a grace and respect but does not gloss over or cosmetize them. Seldom pretty but rather unself-consciously beautiful, their faces radiate an innocence their profession belies. Because Bellocq only shot these works over a short period of time, they are a known quantity, even if the subjects are anonymous.
Eight-nine glass plates survived after Bellocq's death; they are painstakingly reproduced here full-size in a gentle sepia style. Many were never intended for display or exhibit, he smashed through faces in some plates, leaving only a few dozen faceless lush-hipped nudes for posterity. What makes Bellocq a better book is not only Sontag's thoughtful introduction but a number of 1969 interviews with some New Orleans residents who had known the photographer, including a woman named Adele, one of his subjects. In the beginning, there was the electric guitar. Okay, so the phrase doesn't go like that. Classic Guitars of the '50s: The Electric Guitar and the Musical Revolution of the '50s edited by Tony Bacon (Miller-Freeman Press, $29.95 hard) makes a good case, though, for the string instrument as an icon of the times. Like their series of other books on instruments, Miller-Freeman doesn't just lovingly display collectible instruments in more than 200 color photos and four fold-out spreads, it offers memorabilia, trivia, magazine articles, and advertisements, plus text by 15 notable writers in a lush tribute to the guitar.
Velvet Underground-era John Cale in Stephen Shore's The Velvet Years
There's an inherent irony to taking the culture of the streets and giving it to the masses. Surfers, Soulies Skinheads & Skaters: Subcultural Style from the Forties to the Nineties by Amy de la Haye and Cathie Dingwall, photographs by Danny McGrath (Overlook Press, $40 hard) sort of runs into that problem. Here, they painstakingly and impressive researched street style clothing from the Forties to the present, then reproduced it in photographs that too often end up competing with the page design for the eye's attention. It's also hard to tell exactly what's going on with the authors. The initial statement in the book asserts that style begins in the underground and moves up, to be cleaned up and mass-produced for public consumption, causing street style to have to reinvent itself. But while I can appreciate the effort that went into the staging and styling of the photographs, I never get any sense of the organic nature of how street style evolves. Perhaps that's because the basic component of street style is rebellion, and while that has always been easy to represent, it's almost impossible to fake. This book is too in love with the idea of itself.
Better for me is when the images of the subculture are like those captured in Dream Baby Dream: Images from a Blank Generation by Stephanie Chernikowski (2.13.61, $25 paper). Chernikowski, a former Austinite, was one of those right-place-right-time people who was prescient enough to have her camera on hand when punk went down at CBGB in the late Seventies. Unfortunately, I'm just going to tickle your imagination a little with her black-and-white scenes from the scene since Tim Stegall will go into Dream Baby Dream next issue.
It's also cheating a little for me to write about The Velvet Years 1965-67: Warhol's Factory photographs by Stephen Shore, text by Lynne Tillman (Thunder's Mouth Press, $24.95 paper), since it came out at the end of last year. But the ongoing fascination with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground make Shore's collection of photos from the heady Factory days of late-Sixties New York just as compelling as Chernikowski's. Indeed, it seems that the most potent thing a camera can do is freeze-frame action, and when it does so capturing a moment in time, the effect can be visceral. It is interesting to note how the look of the Warhol crowd and the Factory background makes some of Shore's photos indistinguishable from Warhol's or Gerard Malanga's or any of the others who documented it. And it's also interesting to see that VU member John Cale makes the leap from Shore's psychedelic Factory to Chernikowski's Bowery scene.
Stephaine Chernikowski's punk-era John Cale from Dream Baby Dream
As long as I'm fudging on print dates, let me shamelessly recommend Juke Joint, photographs by Birney Imes (University Press of Mississippi, $29.95 paper), which came out in 1995 but is exactly what this kind of book should be: highly recommended. Lucinda Williams pored over this book while writing her still-in-progress record -- this book and another on rattlesnakes and religious cults. I liked to have died over both books but didn't see either again until I was wandering through Yard Dog gallery on my birthday this year and Juke Joint presented itself in front of me on a bookshelf. I bought it as a present for myself along with a $10 piece of art I picked out from a tin washtub.
Juke Joint's provocative images are stark, unpretentious, and seedy, and fairly burst with the indomitable pride of the human spirit and the pursuit of happiness. These ramshackle bars and roadhouses dot the landscape of the South, weather-beaten institutions of indeterminate age where the locals go to decompress from the work week. Only the occasional beer calendar suggests a time-frame -- most of these appear to have been taken in the mid-Eighties. On one page, empty bourbon pints and cigarette butts litter a tattered tablecloth, a string of Christmas lights sparkle in the background. On another, three young black boys face the camera with the awkward cool of teenagers. Written on the beaten wall behind them in white chalk reads a sentiment: True Love -- Junebug v/s Hurricane 2 Kool 2 be 4gotten. That image galvanized and inspired Williams and she wrote a song, "2 Kool 2 Be 4 Gotten."
Of course, Lucinda Williams wasn't specifically writing about the photo but that's not the point. The photograph sparked something in her imagination that caught her muse's fire elsewhere. Shouldn't art and photography books always do that for us?
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