Sunday, December 10, 2017

Closedown: The Oxen of the Sun, 2009-2017

For the past eight years at The Oxen of the Sun, I've chronicled my journey as a book collector. This will be my last post here, as I've redirected much of my free time towards developing my portfolio as a book critic. It's been such a thrill to share my library with you all over the years, and appreciate everyone's support, comments, and interest. 

Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

On TONGUES by Anders Nilsen

Anders Nilsen’s bibliography is a protean one. Beyond his opus Big Questions, a serialized graphic novel about a flock of birds, a snake, and a crashed pilot, it’s difficult to encapsulate what sort of writer Nilsen really is. He’s published seven other books with Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics, and not one returns to the same storytelling approach that made Big Questions such an engaging and mysterious tome. Works like Dogs and Water, Rage of Poseidon, and The End are all contemplative and beautiful little pieces, but they feel, at times, like side projects -- experiments in both technique and philosophy. Without the pressure of an overarching, multi-year plot, Nilsen tries new ideas and forms with each new page. Poetry Is Useless, a collection of the artist’s sketchbooks published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2016, feels like a microcosmic example of Nilsen’s expansive style: from gags to portraits to surreal landscapes, the collection quietly reinforces the artist’s penchant for exploration. These are engaging works, no doubt, but confounding in their meander: after Big Questions concluded in 2010, one could bundle together Nilsen’s prolific output and consider them signs of an artist looking for what’s next. An artist growing outward, and expanding in turn.

There’s a figure that appears in a number of Nilsen’s works and sketchbooks that seems to be the embodiment (or disembodiment might be more apt) of this feeling. He begins as a stick figure, and in the following frames blooms into fractalling tendrils, growing incomprehensibly into every possible iteration of legs and arms.

This figure expands, inward and outward, self-evolving into a dizzying conceptual tangle. It’s everything at once: influencer and influenced, purposeful and aimless. By the end, the figure is unrecognizable, lost in infinite possibility, but its limbs can be traced back to one core, one heart and mind.

Did the philosophy of Big Questions grow out of mythology? Scenes with Algernon and The Snake will surely make any Plato buff proud, but perhaps moving backwards is a way to evolve even further. In an enfolded, inward expansion from the Platonic experiments of Big Questions, The Rage of Poseidon shows Nilsen fully embracing the Greek Myths while remaining formally adventurous: bound as an accordion book, The Rage of Poseidon’s single-page panels resemble a classical Shadow Play -- striking, but doubly so considering Nilsen’s previous reliance on white space in sparser works like Big Questions and Dogs and Water.

But what about the artist’s unfiltered, raw works? The Monologues books show that comics as a form can be used when a creator has something to say but not necessarily something to show. Dogs and Water, although beautifully illustrated with the same precision as Big Questions, is more resonant on a theoretical level as opposed to a visual one: with little more than a deserted horizon, it’s better to swim amongst its words and ideas.

As a fan, I’ve been wondering for years where all this has been headed -- wondering at what shape this twisting form might finally rest. And now, I have an answer: Anders Nilsen’s new book Tongues is the denouement we never saw coming.

Of course it begins with a bird, but this time it’s a detailed, scowling vulture flying over a salmon-pink desert. The bird alights upon a cluster of three military vehicles: one is upside-down, one on its side, as if the convoy had hit a hidden mine. A man of vaguely middle-eastern origin lies dead in a tangle, arms and legs splayed in outward angles. The first eight pages of Tongues are a silent, stunning echo to Big Questions’ crashed pilot and curious avian cast. In this story, philosophical cartooning is traded for timely realism. This landscape could be any desert from our international headlines.

The story shifts abruptly: a narrator speaks to the vulture and recounts a mythic story of a girl being pulled into existence from a pit of mud. The figure who finds her speaks in a cipher and is covered in cilia, sprouting strands from his back like a pregnant toad. The frames of the comic crowd into bubbles that, as a whole take, on a single biological form per page. Like in Rage of Poseidon, shadowy hands and paws emerge from the borders, but here they grow even more alive. Digestive tracts, nerves, villi and veins fill the lines between each swollen frame, evolving further with each page as this girl is coaxed into existence. “Then I woke up,” he says, “And there you were.”

The narrator looks older than in his story, the growths on his forehead worn down. He’s shackled to mountain clearing, and rests on an alien-like bed of green bismuth. He can still see movement in his hands, expansive growths emanating from his palms. He speaks with the vulture about his dream, and eventually says it can “do what you have to do and go.” With a single talon, the vulture neatly slices out the figure’s liver and flies away. “Let’s resume our game tomorrow,” Prometheus says.

The following chapter, called “Hercules,” dizzyingly returns again to a previous Nilsen story. The hoodie-wearing man from Dogs & Water is back: he’s still carrying his knapsack and teddy bear, and is still walking towards the horizon, talking to himself. In Dogs & Water, he feels more like the protagonist in an existentialist experiment, but in Tongues he’s very much lost in the desert. He manages to flag down the driver of a military vehicle, who after some tense deliberation, decides to give him a lift.

The chapter closes by returning to the opening wreckage. The girl from Prometheus’ dream is there, and she’s older, preteen and precocious, and perhaps the sole survivor of whatever happened before the book’s open. The appearance of a tesseract amidst the debris suggests some kind of cosmic payload was being transferred.

I’m almost certain I could find this tesseract in previous works, whether it’s hidden in one of Nilsen’s gardens in A Walk through Eden or buried in a sketchbook page of Poetry is Useless. And it’s exactly this connectivity that is so exciting about Tongues: not only is it a beautifully illustrated and thoughtful read, it hums with an overarching, quiet harmony, in tune with the rest of Nilsen’s oeuvre. It flawlessly renders experimental past works as recurring motifs and finds a way to develop them in tandem with other hidden threads. Nilsen leaves us not simply waiting for what’s to come, but stretches us backwards, inwards, to find what we may have missed in previous iterations of writer and reader.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Peter Saul, Conceptual Art (Picturebox, 2012, signed and numbered edition)

Picturebox was a wonderful publishing house based in Brooklyn that put out art and comic books from 2000-2013. I remember years ago they had a pop-up in Gowanus in Brooklyn and my wife and I stopped by for an event -- I think it was the launch party for the amazing two-volume Gary Panter book. The Picturebox bibliography was ahead of its time, doing zines with some big players in the contemporary art world like Joe Bradley and Michael Williams. As a comics fan, it was a thrill to browse their books for some new minis by Dash Shaw or the post-Buenaventura Press Kramer’s Ergot 8, and then be tuned into folks like Jonas Wood or find some historical books on Karl Wirsum and the Chicago Imagists.

Picturebox did an outstanding book with Peter Saul which completely passed by me when it first came out in 2012. Conceptual Art is a staple-bound compilation of Saul’s fantastic painting studies - it’s printed in purple ink like an old mimeograph. Saul’s one of my favorites and it’s such a silly time to look through these studies -- we’ve got goofy riffs on “Napoleon Crossing the Alps”, some cheshire-grinning de Kooning scrambles, and a slew of hotel-stationery doodles.

When he finishes a drawing that he thinks might be a great painting, Saul draws gridlines over it (art school 101-style) which are then transferred to his massive canvases. There’s a beautiful sense of naive wonderment to his works on paper, mixed with a confidence that can only be obtained from an exceptional fluency in art history.

This book is from an edition of 300 signed and numbered copies and is exceptionally hard to find -- there’s not ever a copy on abebooks. I don't know how you'd find one if you wanted to. I found this at Harper’s Books in Easthampton -- they have an amazing annual sale which bumped the price down to $135.

The book felt particularly essential to me because I recently bought this beauty: an original Saul drawing of a pig-nosed “REMBRANT” dog, with paintbrushes in his mouth!

Currently reading:
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Currently listening to:
The Afghan Whigs, "In Spades"

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Hunter S. Thompson, "Mistah Leary He Dead" lettered edition chapbook from X-Ray Book Company

I finally took the plunge and picked up this ultra-rare Hunter S. Thompson chapbook Mistah Leary He Dead. As I've mentioned elsewhere on The Oxen of the Sun, Thompson's cult following was what initially opened up the world of book collecting to me. Like a lot of people, I got into Thompson in high school and I remember the moment I learned that the used HST books I had been voraciously reading were first editions and potentially worth some good money. This started me checking number lines for first printings and I've been doing so ever since.

I've long considered there to be a "trinity" of HST collectibles: the first issue of Screwjack, the eulogy for Timothy Leary Mistah Leary He Dead, and the ultra-rare Fire in the Nuts that was made with Ralph Steadman and Joe Petro. Years ago, I found Screwjack and featured it here. Now I have Thompson's Heart of Darkness-referencing Timothy Leary eulogy and its absolutely incredible. 

This was handmade by the X-Ray Book Co. from San Francisco and printed in New Orleans at the School of GlassWorks and Printmaking Studio. There are only 300 numbered copies and 26 lettered ones -- the lettered copies were intended to be signed by the Good Doctor but they ultimately were not. The eulogy is only two beautifully written pages with thin white sheets bound in before and after.

And finally, a surprise inside the back cover:

Tipped into the back flap is an un-dipped sheet of blotter acid, with a grid of Leary's grinning face over the sheet of tabs.

This is one of the lettered copies ('M') and as a bonus, the seller sent on the promotional flyer from X-Ray with the book's initial specs. Such a great find and I'm thrilled to finally call it my own.

Currently reading:
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Currently listening to:
Slowdive, "Slowdive" (2017)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

TASCHEN's Ai Weiwei monograph, signed trade edition

In my opinion, the editor Hans Werner Holzwarth is the best thing German luxury-book publishers Taschen has going for it, but their audience has shifted too far from art books for Holzwarth to be appreciated in the way that he deserves. His books are impeccably designed and boast finely-curated essays that warrant actual reading (sadly a rarity for a beautiful art monograph). The artists he features are a fine balance of market players and contemporary classics, ranging from Jeff Koons to Albert Oehlen and Neo Rauch. Each book has a gorgeous full-bleed detail of an artwork for its cover, and in its first edition (a limited cloth-bound folio in a clamshell case) these details look positively breathtaking. These are typically offered in a limited edition of 1,000 signed and numbered copies (prices range from $1000-1500), and 100 "Art" Editions that come with an original print ($4500+). Later, a $70 trade edition is usually offered. I proudly own four of the Taschen Holzwarth limited editions and they look exceptionally good lined up in their cases -- their colors, lettering -- hell, everything -- is perfect. But shockingly, these books don't seem to sell well: a signed, limited Mario Testino photo book will disappear from stores in a busy holiday season but the best book on Christopher Wool is still available, even while his work breaks auction records worldwide.

I'm always excited to hear of a new book that Holzwarth is involved with, but its been a weird few years -- I'm smitten with Darren Almond thanks to his recent Fullmoon but this was only available as an art edition ($2500+ with a print) or as a trade edition ($70)... with no signed, limited edition in between for more casual collectors. In a similarly strange move, Taschen came out with a gorgeous limited edition book on Ai Weiwei but did so without a clamshell case: the limited edition comes wrapped in a scarf. This, to me, sounds like a logistics nightmare: however beautiful a book may be, if it's over $1000 I'd like to take care of it with something more than a fabric wrap. For both the Almond and the Ai Weiwei, I decided to opt for the trade edition. A strange turn for a collector like me, particularly so considering I already own the majority of the series.

I received an email recently from Taschen that Ai Weiwei would be doing a sudden middle-of-the-day book signing one Thursday (I think he had an opening that night at Mary Boone) -- I was at work that day but the New York store graciously hooked me up with a phone order. While of course nowhere near the print quality of the limited edition, to me, this is as great as the $1500 scarf-wrapped limited version, far more manageable and potentially a little more rare. I know the artist was there for only a few hours and probably signed no more that 100 copies. I'm thrilled to have one. Copies are being listed now for around $600 on eBay and abebooks, but mine will be staying in my library.

Currently reading:
Autumn by Ali Smith

Currently listening to:
Xiu Xiu, "Forget"

Monday, February 20, 2017

Anders Nilsen, A Walk in Eden (accordion-bound artist's book, edition of 20)

I've written about Anders Nilsen quite a bit at The Oxen of the Sun and elsewhere. I've tracked Big Questions to its omnibus publication, featured Rage of Poseidon after picking up a copy from Nilsen himself at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and reviewed a number of titles at the former Contemporary Lit site (compiled here). Most recently I wrote about sketchbook-compilation Poetry is Useless in the Fall 2015 print issue of Rain Taxi. When Nilsen announced that he was working on a coloring book called A Walk in Eden, I was excited to see the finished product but was a little skeptical to see how it fit in the with the rest of his body of work. But, of course, the book is exceptional and despite its ties to what may be a waning coloring fad it persists as a standalone piece. A Walk in Eden is a mesmerizing vision of meticulous line-work and fantasy: flowers bloom into crystalline root systems, Orangutans ride elephants with dinosaurs in the distance and mangroves sprout from the backs of giant lizards. It's playful and expansive and, in my opinion, too perfect to color.

Last fall, Nilsen announced a handmade accordion book of a single 12-panel panorama from A Walk in Eden. (The trade edition ended up chopping up these continuous landscapes into multiple pages.) Measuring 10 feet across, this artist's book edition of A Walk in Eden presents Nilsen's work as it was originally created. It's absolutely stunning and would not be out of place in a vitrine at a gallery or museum retrospective. The book is $100 and in an edition of only 20 copies. I'm stunned that there are still some available. Any fans of his work should try to pick one of these up before they're gone. Go here to purchase (the site says there are only 13 left).

Further, it's really important to support these kinds of handmade flights from artists. Selling through an edition of 20 books sends a message that there's a market for these things and will inspire anyone to make more work. It's also so good to see that an artist like Nilsen still has the passion to make things. When I first discovered his work around 2005, it was a time of miniature staple-bound books and I think of this accordion edition as a return to those days. It's such a special piece that cuts through contracts and global distribution - it's just an artist making something beautiful, and that's worth every dollar.

Currently reading:
Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund

Currently listening to:

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1st edition, 1st printing)

Happy New Year!

Due to my critical writing picking up, I'm going to formally step back from The Oxen of the Sun and aim for a major, meaningful update once a month. Over the past year and half I challenged myself to a new post once a week, which I more-or-less was able to achieve. It was an interesting challenge, in that it forced me to keep up the pace with my collecting. However, as my library's been growing more refined and I've been getting into art collecting, I'm trying to focus my major acquisitions to just that: major, long-lusted-after items. Things like this:

This is a first edition, first printing of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It just might be one of the best books I've ever read. This time last year I embarked with a number of other readers on "Infinite Winter", a season-long online reading group led by a handful of passionate readers and scholars. (I even contributed a few columns as a guest writer.) I'd always had a standing respect for DFW's books, but this is the big one: it's one of those rare books that's inseparable from its reading experience -- I'll always remember where I was in my life when I was exploring the Enfield Tennis Academy with the Incandenza family, learning about the Entertainment and the Clipperton Suite.

In one of my columns I wrote about how I'd always had a copy of the book but never got around to reading it. Collector-wise, it wasn't worth much and I ended up selling it (it was a first edition but a later printing). I'd had hopes of finding a 1st/1st and waited patiently... this one came up for just over $200 on eBay a little while ago and I pulled the trigger. It's surprisingly clean for its price and in great shape.

The first printing has some great quirks: favorite author William T. Vollmann's name is spelled incorrectly on the back, and there's an enigmatic ring on the bottom-right corner of the last page of the novel (before the endnotes).

Thrilled to finally call this my own. All that's left is one of the rare hardcovers of The Broom of the System and then I'll be all set!

As always, thanks for reading and I'll see you next month with something new and exciting. 

Currently reading:
Commotion of the Birds by John Ashbery

Currently listening to:
"Native North America" compilation by Light in the Attic