Saturday, October 8, 2016

Art, photography, and a trip through bad taste: A selection of books for autumn weekend reading

These previously-reviewed titles at Bellemeade Books are a good reason to enjoy autumn's cooler weather indoors on the couch: from a rediscovered story by William Burroughs getting the graphic-novel treatment, to the photography of North Carolina photographer Joe Webb. There's still plenty of reading left for a lazy weekend afternoon.

Above: Everyone's favorite cranky Uncle Bill, William S. Burroughs, continues to battle the forces of Control years after his death. The author gave name to heavy metal, provided inspiration to underground writers everywhere, and pissed off an entire generation of academic critics, and now his forty-year old "bedtime story" Ah Pook Is Here is re-published in a deluxe edition by Fantagraphics Books: "Ah Pook Is Here is a consideration of time with respect to the differing perceptions of the ancient Maya and that of the current Western mindset. It was Burroughs’ contention that both of these views result in systems of control in which the elite perpetuate its agendas at the expense of the people. They make time for themselves and through increasing measures of Control attempt to prolong the process indefinitely."

The Work of Joe Webb: Appalachian Master of Rustic Architecture (Jargon Books, distributed by the University of Georgia Press) is work that celebrates the craftsmanship of the Highlands, North Carolina woodworker and builder who created nearly thirty log cabins in the 1920s and 1930s. Cox's contemporary photographs -- taken with a large-format field camera -- reveal the houses in current states of repair, disuse, or unrecognizable renovation: a review in Blueprint calls the images "hallucinatory ... balustrades of thick, twisted twigs minimizing thickets; staircases constructed with random patterns of interlocking laurel or rhododendron branches."The North Carolina artist whose website offers a welcome and a request ("welcome to my mosque ... please wipe your muddy mind before entering") is a photographer, luthier, portraitist; his photo subjects range from the ephemera of the soul to whorls of river water to the graffiti-plastered walls of the now-closed CBGB's, documenting the passage of the temporal in sharply-rendered images of both beauty and clarity.

The University of Texas at Austin recently offered a rare opportunity to see an image considered to be "the world's first photograph." Taken in 1826, the shadowy, indistinct image is almost invisible to the eye, but it is the centerpiece of a grand collection of 35,000 photographs, nearly 200 of which were displayed at the Harry Ransom Center on the Austin campus. The University of Texas Press is publishing a companion volume with 125 plates selected from the Gernsheim collection. From the book's preface: "The collection’s clearest strength remains its holdings in nineteenth-century British photography, including hundreds of images by such masters as David Hill and Robert Adamson, Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, and Henry Peach Robinson. The Gernsheims carried their passion for the medium into the twentieth century by also collecting significant works by modern photographers, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Man Ray, Paul Strand, Albert Renger-Patsch, Edward Weston, and Henri Cartier-Bresson."

For whatever reason, some books just stay with you. Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste by Gillo Dorfles is one of those books. While the line separating art from kitsch is exceedingly fine, one man's trash is still saved from being another man's treasure by context, or (more rightly) kitsch's complete lack of one. Da Vinci's Mona Lisa appears much less inscrutable on a plastic shower curtain. Mass production has made the irony of "authentic reproduction" available on a grand scale.Some of the academic essays have not aged well -- the book was originally published in 1968 -- even if the gently tortured Italian-into-English translation has its own charm: "And obviously before long (and even now in fact) we will witness the anti-family kitsch, the kitsch of hippies and long-haired youths, the kitsch of addicts and beatniks,"writes Dorfles -- foretelling Nirvana's cover version of Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" by a good 20 years.

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