Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bill by Bill Berkson and Colter Jacobsen

Review by
Jason Morris


BILL, a seemingly effortless collaboration between Bill Berkson and Colter Jacobsen, is profoundly strange each time you open it. Immediately it struck me as something that had resurfaced: its cover—a beaten-up manilla folder with the word "BILL" written casually and matter-of-factly in Sharpie, also bears a gorgeous and subtle drawing of an astronaut, or maybe a sailor. Some figure with a space helmet or a diving bell on, prepared to rediscover a lost place.

As both Berkson and Jacobsen explain in their afterwords, BILL was, in fact, lost for a long while. Sometime around 1980, Tom Veitch gave Berkson a young-adult detective novel called Bill, from which he then worked much of the dry, crackling language in the book Gallery 16 just released in a beautiful hardcover edition. For twenty some-odd years, the manuscript had just mellowed in a drawer. Colter writes, in his afterword, that Bill Berkson sent him the manuscript "out of the blue," after their mutual friend Mac McGinnes (to whom BILL is dedicated) suggested that Colter provide artwork to accompany the words.

Similarities between Jacobsen's artwork and Berkson's lines shift and resurface, too, as though the images had long ago accompanied the text; the pairings seem like they'd been lost, only now to be magically realigned. However the book coolly resists allowing the two elements—the verbal and the visual—to ever entirely cohere. The images float above the lines, inviting a correspondence that's consistently fresh with interference. Which is what makes the book so pleasantly weird each time you go through it. It's a mystery novel for kids that's been chopped up and lost, a book that's resurfaced bearing its erasures whole.

Jacobsen's artwork is taken, as he writes in his afterword, from a couple of collections of old postcards he then rendered, gorgeously, in graphite. The translation, from faded black and white photos to subtly realized pencil drawings, not only retains the old ghostliness of the originals, but also suggests that the earasures and blank spaces of the drawings are proper to the postcards themselves. Gorgeously detailed but mutely refusing to yield context, they're like elegant analog recordings of 78s, with all the tape hiss and ambient noise intact.

Initially, Jacobsen's work will amaze you with its sheer technical capacity. The drawings are assured and solid, somehow both meticulous and off-hand. When you look at them closely, a number of Colter's fascinations come through, too: symmetry and the pairing of twinned things, plus a casually sophisticated variation on composition (check out all the W's).

Bill Berkson's writing often takes its cues from artwork, so it's interesting to see the reverse, where drawings illuminate his words. In crisp, droll language unscrolling at the bottom of each page, we watch a hidden story take place. Doubly hidden, in a way, insofar as we're reading fragments of a detective story. It's sort of like a Hardy Boys installment guest-authored by Beckett. The good humor abides, clipped and terse, and the darker elements suggest a little nastiness to the Secret of the Old Mill or the Short-Wave Mystery. Pieces of language float up to the bottom of the page as if through a dream, buoyed by an outmoded familiarity: "Bill was feeling his biceps. 'Tomorrow we're going to have a life-and-death struggle!"' Below a drawing of trapeeze swingers extended out into the empty space of the page in a kind of V, the line, "Of course there were some risks involved, but a detective must take risks. If he didn't want to do that, he might just as well run a hot-dog stand." There's a musicality to a lot of the lines that's probably impossible for a poet as masterful as Bill Berkson to hide: "the door fell with a dull thud." Berkson's poetry fires its synapses just beneath the stock language of a kid's detective book, creating a disjointed narrative of surprise.

This is a gorgeous book—a beautiful, slim hardback replete with sophisticated graphite drawings and mysterious blips of otherworldly language. It emerges with its lost and found aura to take its place beside Ashbery and Brainard's Vermont Notebook and Brainard's collaboration with Kenward Elmslie, The Champ, among others. BILL is a nonchalant triumph, a fresh classic.

Monday, June 1, 2009

More Alice Shaw in the News

Artist as Subject, Curator, and Author
by Michelle Y. Hyun for ArtSlant

Gallery 16
501 3rd St., San Francisco, CA 94107
May 21, 2009 - June 27, 2009

Artist-curated exhibitions are a particularly interesting site of information and disinformation about the artist. Alice Shaw creates a prescribed path of viewing around the gallery in a trajectory that begins with what at first may appear to be a very self-indulgent series of work. It begins with a self-portrait, shot in a style similar to her previous identity-based work, and moves on to non-photographic work and documents created by others. Auto Portrait (2003) is followed by an exhibition statement, handwritten by the artist, hung in a diptych with a graphological (handwriting) analysis telling Shaw about her character and personality based on the lines, dots, and space in her writing. Consequently, these documents are followed by a handmade worksheet, Cursive Practice (2009), complete with dotted blue guidelines in which Shaw doesn’t quite fit the entire alphabet on one page.

The rest of the show follows in a humorous, associative manner, relying on wordplay and relating visual cues, making for a brief but fun exploration of Shaw’s conceived “autobiography.” A mysterious psychic reading appears to have been created on a typewriter and then redacted with black marker. This is followed by an astro-location reading, assessing the location of planets passing over the earth on the day of the Shaw’s birth and complete with suggestions by the astro-locationer of where Shaw would be most happy living. Following a list of disparate locations such as Hawaii, Sante Fe, Israel, and the western coasts of India and Australia, a diptych of Sea (2009) and Desert (2009) ties together the bisecting horizons of a blue ocean and brown desert in cyanotype and van dyke brown prints, respectively. Similarly, a block print palm reading filled with scrawled notes is followed by another diptych of “palm prints” of palm tree fronds in cyanotype and van dyke brown. To complete her series of call and response works, Shaw asked a synesthete to tell her what color he/she saw when hearing her name, “Alice.” The response to which is displayed in Colorfield #1 (2009), an 18 x 14 inch canvas painted over in dark gumball pink. Logically, or so thought in the artist’s mind, Colorfield #1 meets the Guessing Game (2009), a corner in which a gumball machine on a pedestal invites viewers to insert a penny and try to guess the color of their gumball before turning the knob. Although this author’s penny got stuck, one might hope that any or all the gumballs would come out pink – despite the rainbow variety seemingly possible inside the glass globe.

The next sequence of works appears to be a jocular pondering by the artist on her role as feminist or maybe just a female. Again, drawing upon puns and associations with femininity, Shaw shows us Colorfield #2 (a candid photo of the artist in a bright pink dress), Face Print of My Colors (2008) in makeup on paper, almost monochrome polaroids of the four seasons, a $10,000 envelope sealed with a kiss, Lacquer Painting (2009) made entirely with fingernail polish, and a photo of grocery store aisle sign listing off “Hosiery, Feminine Needs, Facial Tissue, Shampoo, Hair Care, Stationary, Magazines” in Feminine Needs (1997/2009).

The exploratory journey takes an interesting leap from here, though relating back to the colorfields, gumball machine, and monochrome prints. In A Portrait of the Artist at Work – 18% Grey, Shaw reminds us that she is a photographer. As only the third self-portrait in this autobiographical show, the artist is seen standing in a corner. In the photo, Shaw points at the intersection of two walls, one painted white and the other in 18% grey – a standard reference value against which photo light meters are calibrated. This is then followed by a sequence of “rainbows,” spray painted in black and white, depicted in as a water color palette, and then in makeup palettes staged along with q-tips and brushes on a wooden chair.

After rounding this second corner, (Auto)Biography leans again in the direction of the occult and mysticism. Premonition (2009) appears to be a rubbing of a headstone for “Alice Shaw,” which is then followed by an interesting group of works on three mini-shelves. The remnants of a tea leaf reading and a cigarette butt in a ceramic teacup on one shelf are flanked by two “daguerrotypes.” The Artist as Medium is an actual daguerrotype self-portrait, and Daguerrotype is an archival pigment print self-portrait. In both photos, Shaw wears a costume, of a gypsy and 19th century gentlewoman respectively, and both photos are presented preciously in book frames. One could spend several minutes creating multiple narratives about these two women and a tea leaf reading.

What follows thereafter seems to trail off and away from the artist as subject. Another series of diptychs play on words, media, and the word “medium.” Viewers who expected a truly autobiographical exhibition or deep insight into the artist may feel disappointed. Nevertheless, Shaw allays such concerns and wins us over with her light-hearted humor in a final sequence of works that seem to say “to be continued…” In What My Show Probably Should Have Looked Like (2009), Shaw depicts in graphite and collage the exact same corner of gallery space hung with two large “commercial fine art photographs.” Shaw then predicts the future in a crystal ball showing herself standing next to a shiny white truck parked in front of a stately white mansion in Prediction (2009). Her methods are never the stuff of magic tricks, as the crystal ball is simply just a photograph resting in between a glass ball and a red velveteen beanbag. Fittingly, (Auto)Biography concludes with six drawings from the Magic Tricks series, each of which reference Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” See Alice cut into three parts. See Alice in a mirror floating in midair. See Alice watch Mr. Rabbit disappear with a poof. See Mr. Rabbit reappear from the magic hat.

There is not any real conclusion when it comes to Alice Shaw’s (Auto)biography. Nor does the viewer come away with any better understanding of Shaw as a person. However, as an artist, Shaw has revealed a thought process, meandering through personal and universal associations, visual symbols, and the use of verbal puns, in a playful and interesting way. Shaw may have yet more to reveal through a post-medium practice, yet still as a photographer.

- Michelle Y. Hyun


Installation View
Show Statement, 2009, 8.5 x 11 inches
Handwriting Analysis, 2009, 8.5 x 11 inches

Installation View
Palm Reading, 2009, block printing ink on paper, 8.5 x 7
Palm Print – Cyanotype / Palm Print-Van Dyke, 2009, Spray paint on paper, 22 x 15 inches

Installation View
Color Field #1, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 14 inches
Guessing Game, 2009, gumball machine and gumballs, 12 x 7 x 7 inches
Color Field #2, 2009, 1 of 3, archival pigment print in plexi, 4.5 x 7 inches

Alice Shaw, Prediction, 2009, archival pigment print, bean bag, and glass ball, 9 x 9 x 5 inches.

All images courtesy of Gallery 16, San Francisco

Posted by Michelle Y. Hyun on 5/31 | tags: figurative abstract lan