Sunday, January 29, 2012

Peter Mendelsund, Damien Hirst, and color systems

This month, I read the last volume of Osamu Tezuka's 17-book manga series Black Jack, saw one of the ten Damien Hirst exhibitions that is currently running at every Gagosian Gallery in the world, and began reading Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet for a review for What do these have in common? I think one can link these three elements through their design aesthetics, which each explore color systems and sequences.

Firstly, the Tezuka and Marcus books are both designed by the excellent Peter Mendelsund, who works with Pantheon, Knopf, and one of my favorite presses, Vertical. While the examples here are very color-oriented, Mendelsund is a lot more versatile and has much more to offer (the excellent artwork for Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo's thrilleds come to mind), but for the sake of this post I'm going to specifically focus on his "color studies" (for lack of a better word).

I featured some other editions of Black Jack in previous posts, but I don't believe I conveyed the scope of Vertical and Mendelsund's massive publishing project. This is a seventeen-volume series of comics, and I believe it started over three years ago at a time when Vertical wasn't even sure they'd have the means to see the series to its end. In its design, Mendelsund managed to make each volume look fresh and also relevant to the time of year the book was released. Volumes that come out in the summer were light and pastoral, while winter volumes were more bold and their colors less complimentary. By looking at the design of the whole series at once, readers could potentially draw connections between each volume's color scheme, and see how they connect to other volumes or the stories within them. Naysayers could claim these are essentially random assortments of color swatches, but I'd rather believe they stand for something more. Perhaps they started that way, and grew to mean something bigger as the design was further developed.

(The last volume is especially fun, as the 2x2 grid of Black Jack 1-16 evolved into something resembling TV color bars. Also, note the die-cut cover!)

Mendelsund also made the excellent artwork for Ben Marcus's kick-in-the-stomach of a new novel, The Flame Alphabet. Following a similar style, Mendelsund works a network of flame-like color triangles into a well-balanced system.

Mendelsund has two blogs that are worth bookmarking, Jacket Mechanical and a more standard portfolio page.

Yesterday, I saw the Damien Hirst show at the Madison Avenue Gagosian Gallery, and much to the shock of a lot of my friends I genuinely like the work. But, I find it's the same reason I like Peter Mendelsund's work with Black Jack and The Flame Alphabet. I believe that a discussion of Hirst's effect on the art market and what it means to be a "true artist" will consistently result in the same grumbling conclusion, but these Spot Paintings appeal to me on a simple one-note level that I very much enjoy. Unless you've already decided against there being any merit to Hirst's spots, it's impossible not to draw relations between his colors when standing in front of one of his pieces. After three floors of Spot Paintings, my eyes did start to strain, but I was amazed to see how certain darker tones emerged while the lighter spots faded into the white background. They began to feel more like a geoboard than anything else:

On a final Damien Hirst note, Other Criteria (Hirst's practically cash-printing production company) intends to put out a 1000 page catalogue to all the Spot Paintings. And, for all the reasons above, I'm really excited about this. I'm certain it'll be a maddening, beautiful book, and based on my copy of Hirst's "Superstition" catalogue, it'll have great production values and become quite a collectible piece. You collectors out there might want to point your browsers this way.

Currently reading:
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
Ulysses by James Joyce
Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas

Currently listening to:
"Mausmix" by John Maus

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Marc Saporta's "Composition No. 1", published by Visual Editions

Visual Editions, the folks behind Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes and a wonderful reprint of Tristram Shandy recently published a new edition of one of the foundational works of hypertext: Marc Saporta's Composition No. 1.

Composition No. 1 was originally published in France in 1962, and has a very simple, trailblazing characteristic: the "book" consists of 150 unbound pages stacked inside a clamshell case.

Further, Composition No. 1 can be read in any order! It features a handful of disparate threads revolving around a small cast of characters as well as some great abstract scenes with nameless people ("the nurse", "the secretary", etc.). These nameless characters fit in nicely with the loose plot, as they provide certain malleable developments depending on the order they are read and the stories the modify. It's a very fascinating read, and one that requires the reader to create his or her own experience.

Visual Editions did a great job with their reprint, which includes text-based artwork on the reverse of every page. Take a look:

Currently reading:
Ulysses by James Joyce
Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Currently listening to:
Jozef van Wissem, "Ex Patris"

Monday, January 16, 2012

James Joyce: Finnegans Wake first edition (uncut, slipcased, out of series)

While I was at home for the holiday, I tried to take some pictures of some my most treasured books so I could share them with you here. My apartment in Brooklyn has a small amount of "risk" to it (our upstairs neighbor is prone to causing leaks through our floor) and I've decided most of my really valuable books are safer up with my parents until I line up some renter's insurance.

This book, above all others, is without a doubt my most dear. It is a first edition of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which was originally published in 1939 in a signed, slipcased edition of only 425 copies. Most copies of this book were pulped due to obscenity charges, and a true first is unfathomably difficult to find. It was bequeathed to me by my grandfather, who was a Joyce scholar by hobby and who was instrumental to my full appreciation of Joyce's brilliance when I first encountered his books in my late teens.

(I'm currently amidst another run through Ulysses, this time guiding my fiancee through her first experience of the book. I've never had the opportunity to directly share Ulysses with anyone before and it's such a fun time.)

So, let's take a look at Finnegans. This book's pages are still uncut (which is always interesting to see), and is in very good condition considering its 75 years of existence.

(I see now my photos are a little limited in angles. Next time I'm in Massachusetts I'll see about getting some more pictures taken).

What's especially interesting is the numbering on this edition. This copy is actually unsigned, and marked "Out of Series". But, if you look closely, you can see it actually had a number (23?) and was erased. Considering copies of this book likely went to notable collectors and scholars at the time it was released, it's a mystery why one would want an unsigned copy and the numbering suppressed.

Perhaps the numbering is a way to link the original owner to the numbered edition (i.e., "copy 200 went to Jeff @ Oxen of the Sun blog"), and by keeping this book "out of series" the owner can no longer connected to such a scandalous book.

Fascinating. I dream of somebody digging through files to find out who the original owner was, but I imagine that would be years and years of research. If there are any Joyce scholars out there who might be able to pass on any clues, please send them my way.

Currently reading:
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Parallel Stories, by Peter Nadas
Men in Space, by Tom McCarthy

Currently listening to:
"Ravedeath 1972" by Tim Hecker

Monday, January 9, 2012

SHIRO: Wit, Wisdom & Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer (Chin Music Press)

Happy New Year, everyone! Hope all your holidays were as enjoyable as mine--I was able to spend some time outside of the city with my parents in Massachusetts, and then some pleasant days off around the first of the year in Brooklyn. Some exciting books were gifted my way, some of which will likely be featured here later in the year.

The fine folks over at Chin Music in Seattle sent a book my way just before I left for the holiday. I always tell myself that I don't HAVE to cover whatever publishers may send me, but Chin Music still consistently wows me with their design and their impressively forward-thinking editorial decisions. So, to start the year off, I'm very happy to share with you a cookbook-memoir hybrid called Shiro: Wit, Wisdom & Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer.

Shiro tells the story of Sushi Chef Shiro Kashiba, who settled in Seattle (from Tokyo) in the mid 60s and pioneered the sushi boom in the Pacific Northwest. The ex-pat story at the core of Shiro is a fascinating, heartfelt read, and will remind readers how sincere and inspiring a cooking memoir can be. Towards the end of Shiro, the book shifts gears and slips into the realm of cookbooks, providing steps to create proper sushi and recipes for some of Shiro's dishes like "Halibut Karaage with Ponzu Sauce".

One of the best things about Shiro is the absence of any superiority in Kashiba's tone when discussing the basics of Japanese cuisine. There are small one-paragraph sections on things like green tea, the proper use of soy sauce, the best knives to use for certain types of fish. Some of these things are really basics of Japanese food (green tea, for instance), but Shiro presents each facet with equal amounts of enthusiasm and joy that it's clear his knowledge comes from a place of passion. Shiro doesn't just educate, he shares, and it seems he's thrilled to have the opportunity to do so.

And lastly, and most importantly, is the superb book design. Just as Shiro's story is a love-letter to all things sushi, Chin Music's design celebrates the Pacific Northwest and Japan in all its graphic beauty. The book is loaded with photographs from Shiro's life, but also features countless little illustrative marginalia from Chin Music's designers. Not only does this make a delightful read, but also connects the book's disparate elements into one cohesive experience. Really nicely done!

Currently reading:
Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas

Currently listening to:
Ford & Lopatin with Shannon Funchess and Tamaryn 12" split