SEEKING PLURALISM IN BOOKS-AS-ART // Tate Shaw

14 Dec 2015 9:00 PM | Anonymous

Two literary books I read in 2015 that were both formally and lyrically inspiring yet challenging to my own status quo were Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. Citizen blurs poetry and criticism and includes images. As a window into what it might feel like to be black and American today, its many assorted panes are variously clear, murky, refracting, cracked, and broken. Similarly, The Argonauts is both life writing and criticism about the author becoming a mother while her partner, an artist who technically identifies as neither female nor male, gets breast removal surgery and begins taking testosterone.

Two equally inspiring book artworks by emerging artists connect to Citizen and The Argonauts: Dark Archives (2015) by Andre Bradley and How to Transition on $0.63 a Day (2013) by Lee Krist. Both are autobiographical with the artists’ personal stories revealed in fragments. Dark Archives exists as a gray folder that holds different sized booklets and printed photographs from yearbooks, family albums, and photographs made by Bradley. With exquisite combinations of images and texts that span from his childhood to today, Bradley enables deep empathy for what it means to grow up and be a young black man in this country. Krist’s bookwork is an epistolary of unbound ephemera and postcards written from the author in Portland, Oregon who sends messages and updates on his transition from female to male to his perhaps disapproving mother back in New York City. Housed in a metal 8mm film case, the postcards with their dislocated, bygone imagery and letterpress printed messages on the reverse, feel current and yet like a farewell to a supposedly simpler time of home movies and family vacations.

It was my great privilege to hear Bradley read from Dark Archives at the Image Text Ithaca (ITI) Symposium in July 2015. Rankine, also at ITI, read #2 from her Situations series of video essays in collaboration with John Lucas. The video imagery of Situation 2 is of people asleep on airplanes while the text is loosely about the “raw material” of the body. I connect Rankine and Lucas’ piece to Robert Gober’s divisive “Hanging Man/Sleeping Man” wallpaper work where a lynched black body is disturbingly patterned with a white body asleep in bed. Hearing both readings may have been the cultural highlight of the year for me because their words and images felt like what it feels like to be alive right now.

It was also my privilege to be a juror with Susan Lowdermilk of the upcoming CBAA Members’ Exhibition at the Nashville conference, Telling the Story, January 7-9, 2016. Krist’s How to Transition on $.63 a Day was one of what seemed like just a few books submitted where the author/artists’ voice was authentically his or hers; in fact a good many of the submissions appeared to incorporate secondary source texts as materials. That being said, I observed the artists who used secondary sources might have done so out of a desire to empathize with victims of what was often a tragic transgression of humanity in some form or another. Yet they were still secondary works of witness. And while all the jurying was blind, it also seemed to me that even fewer than those who were creating work out of an authentic, personal experience were those books by people of color or LGBTQ artists.

Earlier this year Rankine, along with her co-editors Beth Loffreda and Max King Cap also published The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. This compendium basically addresses the question of whether or not a white or straight author has a “right of access” through his or her imagination to give voice to a person of color or who is LGBTQ. An example might be The Book of Dolores by author William T. Vollman, a kind of mass-produced book artwork from drawings, photographs, and writings produced while he cross-dressed as research for a transgender sexworker protagonist in his next novel, what an actual cross-dressing reviewer called “Mansplaining Cross-dressing.” Or as Nelson quips at one point in The Argonauts about a white, heterosexual artist male (such as myself), “Do you have to own everything?”

Finally, the question is how do we get more pluralistic ownership in the field of books-as-art? Does CBAA need official equal opportunity programs for publishing, residencies, and exhibitions?


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