Why is collecting “fine” books an elite activity while collecting “art” ones (including ones that look slick, ones that look grungy, and ones that look boring) one which appeals to a wide selection of the educated public?
To put it another way, why are we thrilled to have a “nearly three thousand” people come to Codex, when Printed Matter New York drew 35,000? I’m trying to puzzle that out, so I attended my second Printed Matter LA this past weekend. (Technically, the name of the event is Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair.)
A few differences are self-evident. Codex is all about craft. The books we show and buy often have fascinating content, but our real afficionados go on about the typefaces, the papers, the bindings–almost never about how interesting the words are. Printed Matter books almost always are provocative, esoteric, or funny. With rare exception, nobody cares how they were produced.
Oh, and then there’s sex. How many erotic images did you see at the last Oak Knoll? Sex is everywhere at Printed Matter…from the smeared b&w of “underground” zines to the glossiest of color photo books.
The intersection of interest between the fairs is “art.” Collectors in both worlds love to find something beautiful, unique, refined–but above all, creative.
I confess that I bought a few books at Printed Matter last year and this. One book artist I discovered last year, billy ocallaghan (yup, that’s how he styles it), makes stunning, moderately expensive, and slyly crude books he has managed to sell into the collections of the Victoria and Albert and the New York Public Library. The “art” is photographs and crayon or marker scrawl, all reproduced in vibrant ink-jet and bound–probably not archivally–in structures which appear to be of his own invention. This year he has moved wholesale into flipbooks, accordions of paper which you hold and endlessly flip up and down from one stack to the next.
Another both-year favorite is Kayrock Screenprinting, which mainly appeals to me because of its craft. When you or I think of screenprinting, we think of t-shirts with big colorful images, or perhaps posters in day-glo colors. Kayrock has perfected the art of printing delicate, detailed images. Last year I bought a book of fine patterns printed in light blue drawn by the company’s empresario, Karl Larocca; this year I bought a photo book. You would never guess either were screen prints. (If I remember correctly, the secret he told me was that he uses somewhat diluted inks, which don’t develop the third-dimensional quality of most silk screen printing.
This year I ended up buying two “books” of word art. Both are accordions. Miranda Maller’s After Reasonable Research uses what appears to be wallpaper as a printing surface, which impairs legibility. It is a timeline, with every conflict she was able to locate listed by its year, ranging from the Parthian dynastic wars of AD 1-35 to 3900 killed in Afghanistan in 2006, the year of publication of the first edition. (Mine was from the third edition.) Only one year, AD 329, is notable in that she was unable to find any conflict which was occuring in that year. This is not a book you will ever read, but it is eloquent nonetheless.
Sam Winston’s “A Dictionary Story” is actually three accordions. Each “spine” pairs text with gloss, positioned on either side of the spine. As things progress, the gloss loses its way, and spills all over the page.
A third pair of books I acquired are comments on color reproduction. Anouk Kruithof (she hails from the Netherlands) alternates pages of minute photographs printed on the matte side of the paper with huge blowups which suggest a halftone screen on a superglossy side; but these are actually squares of single colors, not overlapping dots. I think the name of the book is Pixel Stress, but that might only be the name of the booklet which is inserted, picturing the sale on the sidewalk of framed copies of the blown-up sides.
My second color-reproduction book was Flavio Trevisan’s CMYK: Blow-up. He’s from Toronto. All his books come in a uniform format, perhaps reflecting his being an architect before he started making books. This one is an image of the earth (or at least I think it’s the earth–it’s never identified) at varying degrees of enlargement, from less than an inch in diameter to so close up that a single dot from the image fills a double page.
I bought one piece I don’t know how I’ll ever display. The artist, Gary Kachadourian, draws (generally in pencil) detailed, near photo-realistic objects and surfaces (a 1991 Volvo or a Rubbermaid trash container), and then reproduces them (sometimes with repeating patterns stripped together) at life size. Mine is a 6-foot by 6-foot forest floor.
One of the coolest pieces of art I found was wall art, intended to attract people to the booth of SPA, a publishing imprint. I was in awe of the spray painting.
Printed Matter LA had a series of panels and speakers, five in all. I tried one, a panel of zine creators from the 70s through the 90s. It was heavy going. By the end, I was able to deduce that the man in the middle of my picture wasn’t a zine creator but a zine packager: he has collected ephemera from the period and reproduced it in packages for sale to art museums the world over. “I want to elevate subculture for the whole world,” he said.
So, what’s my bottom line? I think we should try a bit harder to get some younger book artists into our “fine press” events, ones who don’t charge so much for their work. (The high end collectors at Printed Matter didn’t seem to object to rubbing shoulders with the riffraff.) Should we also have a bit of live music at our fairs? Sell coffee? [Well, Codex does sell coffee. But at Printed Matter LA it’s the first thing you discover when you come through the door.] I know that our term “fine press” was arrived at by a painful process of elimination. But these days “fine” may be a turnoff.
Like our Oxford fair, Printed Matter has dealers in antiquarian books sharing the event with current creators. Maybe that is a really good idea: it rubs the noses of those attending in the idea that something that was sold for next to nothing a long time ago can now be worth big bucks.
Oh, and then there’s sex.
You’ll find additional photos on the FPBA Facebook page.