“Art Books” are categorically difficult to define. They might be books that are themselves “works of art,” or collections of and deliberations on artistic movements and unique artists, or limited run books and prints, DIY zines, graphic novels, and glossy magazines.
The “author” of an art book might be a fine artist, an independent publisher, a small press, an illustrator, photographer, or cultural critic. Some art books may include little to no traditional print media. Some may play with the nature of text-as-itself-image, exploding our expectations of the role of an “author,” print and print culture, and the very nature of a “book.”
This month’s column highlights “art books” in complement to the 2023 Capital Art Book Fair, held Saturday and Sunday, April 1 and 2, in Eastern Market’s North Hall. A partnership led by East City Art with support from the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and Hill Center, the inaugural art book fair hosts over 30 exhibitors from across the DMV, the US, Canada and Mexico. The event is open to the public and free. More information about the fair can be found at: artbookfair.eastcityart.com
We invite readers to join us this month in celebration of this wonderfully dynamic and creative genre with the following three reviews.
The DC I SEE
Carolyn Toye’s book of photographs captures the color, texture, lines, patterns, forms, deformations, absences, erasures, and stunning everyday complexities of DC’s urban terrain—an unexpectedly exquisite photographic eye capturing aging brick and mortar, nostalgia, decline, neglect, abandonment, found objects, mechanistic residues, and the yet ever-present soul of city life and its imprint.
As Phil Hutinet, founder of East City Art, writes in the foreword to this breathtaking collection, “Where many saw blight, urban decay, and redevelopment opportunities, Toye. . . found desolate beauty in the fabulous ruins of post-1968-riot D.C. Like the remains of an ancient Roman city or the ruins of a Mayan temple, the faded architecture of a glorious past resonated into the present, stimulating the imagination and forcing the viewer to make sense of the disarray in which one could find glimmers of hope and beauty.”
Toye notes that one of her goals as a photographer is to preserve the “artistry” inherent in the everyday and quickly vanishing city, a landscape that for her holds “treasured memories” of family, neighborhood culture, and belonging. Her photos make real the stories that live below the surface of gentrification.
“As a native Washingtonian,” Toye writes, “I never tire of seeing the majestic and powerful monuments and structures that characterize the city of ‘Washington, D.C.’ I prefer, instead, to capture, in still frames, the quiet beauty that lives in every quadrant, in every neighborhood, and on every street of my hometown.”
Let’s Talk Art
Michelle L. Hermans’ book explores an artistic relationship with “manufactured” or AI-generated texts. Her book includes a series of “interview transcripts,” capturing interviews that never were—composed by the “Generative Pretrained Transformer 2 (GPT2) open-source text-generating model developed by OpenAI.” To achieve her ghost-in-the-machine effect, Herman “re-trained” the platform with over one-thousand artist interviews, then altered the names of the interviewees “talking art.”
The resulting interview texts are at turns absurd—Donald Trump as “very, very sophisticated. . . more sophisticated than, say, a sculptor”—simultaneously performative, empty and biting. Consider this exchange:
FINCH: Well, you can’t just paint. You have to be an artist. You have to be a serious artist. That’s a different concept. And I think it’s very important. But I think he’s really being a very, very, very, very smart artist, which is very, very great.
FINCH: But I think it’s very, very important.
PATRICK: I would love to be that.
FINCH: Yes. I’m a very, very clever artist.
Based in DC, Herman is a multidisciplinary artist who integrates theoretical and philosophical research, feminist and disability politics, comedy, and conceptualism. To see Michelle L. Herman’s digital and new media installations visit: www.michellelisaherman.com
Hong Kong 2019-2021
Ho Tam’s collection of protest slogans and reflections on the violent occupation of Hong Kong bring the ongoing Hong Kong-China conflict into high, personal and heartbreakingly ordinary, relief. Each slogan or reflection is rendered first as a line of black and white Chinese characters, brushed in a precise, but fluid brush. These blocky symbols are then translated into English and each slogan is unpacked via short, explanatory text.
With sections named “There Are No Rioters, Only Tyranny,” “Glory to Hong Kong” (which commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre), “Hong Kong Independence, The Only Way Out,” “Safeguard The Next Generation,” and “End the One Party Dictatorship,” each section offers textual snap shots of the Hong Kong resistance movement.
Tam’s small book is all the more illuminating in light of China’s ongoing restrictions of free speech and social media. “In the face of the adversities, the Hong Kongers believe that their aspirations are as strong as ever. . . they will fight till their last gasp.”
Voicing the resilience, determination, and unwavering love for their home island—“I Am So Fucking In Love With Hong Kong,” Tam scribes—we see the utterly wrenching emotional labor at the heart of resistance to violent occupation.
This and other books released by HoTamPress of Vancouver, Canada can be found on Etsy.
What Art Books Are We Reading?
DC Bookshops and book sellers celebrate art books. Among East City Bookshop’s top art book sales since December: 1) Art Is Life: Icons and Iconoclasts, Visionaries and Vigilantes, and Flashes of Hope in the Night, by Jerry Saltz; 2) The New Design Rules: How to Decorate and Renovate, from Start to Finish: An Interior Design Book, by Emily Henderson, Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson and Sara Ligorria-Tramp; and 3) 1000 Design Classics, Phaidon Editors; 4) AphroChic: Celebrating the Legacy of the Black Family Home, by Jeanine Hays and Bryan Mason.
Solid State reports their most popular art book sales as: 1) In the Black Fantastic, by Ekow Eshun; 2) Fresh Fly Fabulous: 50 Years of Hip Hop Style, by Elizabeth Way; 3) Africa, by Emmanuel Courreges; and 4) Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now, by Doryun Chong.
Art book enthusiasts may also enjoy perusing the offerings from Paper Cuts, a small press and digital arts company that probes the contemporary world of zines and DIY publishing. Hosting a Podcast series and live events, as well as print media releases, Paper Cuts “features writers, performers, and artists who have shared their work in print, on paper, and in small editions.”
Recent publications include Cronomachy and Place Your Hands on This, by Christopher Kardambikis, and Venus 3 by Jennifer Lillis. More info on Paper Cuts and the art books of Christopher Kardambikis can be found at: www.kardambikis.com/shop
Also look for My Dead Aunt’s Books in Hyattsville, MD. Top sales include: The Art and Life of Luigi Lucioni: a Contribution Towards a Catalogue Raisonne, Arthur Putnam, sculptor, and The Wood and the Graver: The Work of Fritz Eichenberg. My Dead Aunt’s Bookstore is also online at: mydeadauntsbooks.com.
Michelle LaFrance is Associate Professor of English at George Mason University. She teaches creative nonfiction, life writing, and civic writing at the Hill Center. In her free time, she can be found reading, writing, and hiking the region’s forests with two mischievous four-leggeds.