• Susan Ossman

Don't Judge a Book

To follow art in and around LA requires wandering. I do not own a car. I live in downtown Riverside.  Yesterday,  I had an afternoon appointment in Santa Monica. The latest "morning" train to Union Station from Riverside leaves at 8:15 am. So I decided to go into town early in pursuit of art. I took the red line from Union Station to  7th street, then hoped on the Expo line to Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. Since the last post here  thoughts about art and writing, language and calligraphy were on my mind. Drifting from gallery to gallery,  I gravitated toward work that explored words and texts.

It is said that a book should not be judged by its cover.  But in Harland Miller’s “Overcoming Optimism” at the Ikon gallery the cover is all there is to see. His silkscreens of oversized penguin book covers . A crime story- an essay on politics- a broken heart- each title suggests a story line then twists it. The worn brightness of the paperbacks  suggest they have been read many times. One imagines finding one of the books that served as a model for a print in a second hand shop. When you turn the cover page you discover  an inscription: “Samantha Hutch, Cardiff 1972,” or “Mike Landowski, 310 Belsize Park Gardens,”  or perhaps “M.P. for E.R. with affection.” Although Miller’s own books have been published in the 2000’s, the prints suggest a bygone era when dog-eared pages signaled “like” and post cards were the media for the kinds of pithy notes we now tweet. The appearance of the iconic penguin on many of the “covers” seals that feeling. There is a nostalgia for earlier forms of mass production at work here. Fittingly, those who  unable to pay the steep price for   an "original print" can buy the "postcards from Penguin" on amazon.

The prints simple blocks of color are visually striking yet comforting with their ragged edges. The words are often humorous or ironic: the titles  tease and intrigue by displacing generic internal narratives. In front of these oversized book covers, those who read English well enough to “get” the words become viewer/readers. This is not just art with words, but art that calls on “letters” in the sense of the  literary field.

The widely and variously disseminated prints by Miller bring to mind  a project Claire Lambe did last year for a joint exhibition we organized in Berlin. While Miller is the “author” of the books whose covers he prints, Lambe chose instead to use the format of the book cover to explore the fantasies of other writers. She asked the researchers in residence at an institute called the Wissenschaftskolleg  to send her the title of a book they wished they had written. Then she designed covers for these imagined works and printed them in a size and format  of an actual book. She displayed them on the glass fronts of the bookcases that hold actually published  books by authors associated with the institute.  

If I were the institute director, I  would have left them there permanently as a gentle reminder of the importance of fantasy and humor for serious thought.

PS: Gareth Stanton sent me this "comment" via email- seems it's not possible to post images on the comments- quite a drawback! This is one of the books from his quite large personal collections of the "originals."

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