Life’s Work Tom Phillips & Johnny Ca rrera
Books that Keep Giving Life’s Works of Tom Phillips a nd Johnny Ca rrera “The following work, though it has the form of a novel, yet for certain singular seasons hardly deserves the name.” w. h. mallock 1 “In the nature of the use of chance operations is the belief that all answers answer all questions.” john cage W.H. Mallock, A Human Document (London: Chapman and Hall, Ld., 1892). P.1. http://archive.org/details/humandocumentnov01malluoft
hance encounters with books often lead to inspiration, whether it is a particular passage that sticks with you, a jacket design, a typeface, an illustration … even the very act of finding a book itself. For artists Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera literary kismet has changed their lives and work. Neither artist set out to make epic works based on a single book, even though books factored into their general ideas and interests. Phillips, always inspired by and riffing off literature, has for instance created a TV version of Dante’s Inferno and a libretto from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Carrera, a trained bookbinder, is consistently adapting the form of the book. However, it was largely chance that led Phillips and Carrera to, in Cage’s words, all the answers and questions that would motivate the two projects on view in Life’s Work. Life’s Work traces the lives and careers encompassed in Phillips’ A Humument 2 and Carrera’s Pictorial Webster’s Dictionary. Both Phillips and Carrera started with book volumes discovered by accident. In 1966 Phillips was wandering through the markets of Peckham Rye, an area of London, England, with friend and artist R.B. Kitaj. Phillips gave himself a challenge: to find, for less than 30 pence, a book that he could use as fodder for art. Lo and behold, he came across W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document, a Victorian novel, not very popular at that time or today (other than by virtue of Phillips’ treatment of it). For Phillips this book was a kind of blank slate, which over the years birthed successive editions of drawing/collages, an oracle, an opera, sound recordings, and many other works. Of this source material Phillips states: All quotes and references to Phillips and Carrera’s books can be found in the trade publications of each project: Tom Phillips, A Human Document: A Treated Victorian Novel (London: Thames & Hudson, Fifth Edition, 2012) and John M. Carrera, Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2009).
I have so far extracted from his book well over a thousand segments of poetry and prose and have yet to find a situation, sentiment or thought which his words cannot be adapted to cover. That Mallock and I were destined to collaborate across a century became quite clear when I tested other fictions and discovered nothing to equal him in the provocation of fresh conflations and conjunctions of word and phrase. 3
Phillips was taken by this idea of chance, referencing Cage’s experiments with the I Ching as well as writer William S. Burroughs’ cutups in which he would take sections of texts, cut them up and rearrange them. With such tools in mind, Phillips set about rethinking the novel. For A Humument (a word created from letters in the title A Human Document), Phillips takes Mallock’s book page by page,
making individual drawings, which leave visible small sections of original text, inventing a new narrative. The story told by Phillips is of Toge (an amalgamated name taken from letters in the words ‘together’ and ‘altogether’—Toge can only appear on pages where these words exist via Mallock’s pen). Toge is an everyman, and his story is one of love, loss, and the mundane. However, just like a deck of I Ching cards reveals meaning by chance sequence, Toge’s story is not linear. Opening one page of A Humument and flipping through the book creates an everunfolding narrative pulled together by the fate of the reader. In this sense Phillips is rethinking the traditional narrative structure of the novel by inviting his readers/viewers into a new game of active participation. Phillips’ game is one of discovery, with individual drawings/ collages, narratives and copious connections to art, literature and history. For instance, the first page of A Humument echoes Virgil’s epic Latin poem Aeneid 4, while page four references the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the penultimate page of Phillips’ book takes on James Joyce’s 20th-century masterpiece Ulysses in the repetition of the phrase “yes.” 5 In Life’s Work, Phillips’ journey is taken to the extreme, for on view for the first time in this exhibition is the entire unaltered version of Mallock’s book alongside a complete set of prints from Phillips’ first edition side by side with a growing set of pages from his completely reworked second revision, still in progress. Altogether there are nearly a thousand paintings and drawings, which the artist will add to over the course of the exhibition. With this grand, sweeping, re-working of a novel, Phillips invites us to rethink, reread, and reimagine where books can take us. Like Phillips, Carrera accidentally came upon his source of inspiration. In 1996—30 years after Phillips’ discovery—Carrera was
visiting his grandparents’ farmhouse in Maryland and there, beneath his grandfather’s favorite reading chair was a tattered 1898 edition of The International Dictionary. Carrera started by repairing the book and soon realized that the Merriam-Webster Company, which made the dictionary, was located in Springfield, Massachusetts (not far from where Carrera was living in Waltham, Massachusetts). After contacting the company and jumping through some hoops, Carrera found that the original copperplate engravings for these first illustrated dictionaries (specifically the 1859 American Dictionary of the English Language—the first illustrated dictionary in the US—the 1864 edition of the same book and the 1890 International Dictionary) had been gifted to Yale University in 1977, all 12,000 of them. Carrera set about
cleaning and organizing the engravings and copper electrotypes into categories like fish, birds, mollusks, forms of punishment, musical instruments, etc. While doing so, he realized that in our contemporary web-based society, things like dictionaries, illustrated or not, were disappearing. So he decided to create his own Pictorial Webster’s Dictionary, transforming the original sources into a new lexicon of words, texts and meanings—a glimpse into the life of 19th-century America as reinterpreted by the artist. However, like A Humument, Carrera’s book is actually much more than an exercise in reinterpretation, for he too creates an open format allowing for his book of images to be read like a text, and for viewers/readers to use the book as a tool for creative thinking. Carrera notes that: …a book filled with disparate images, such as those from the Webster’s, could be an artistic experiment to test my hypothesis on the origin of creativity: that new ideas arise from the recombination of old ideas. 6 3 Phillips quoted in Daniel Traister’s “W.H. Mallock and A Human Document”, http://humument.com/essays/traister02.html 4 Virgil’s Aeneid states: “I sing of arms and of a man” while Phillips extracts: “I sing a book of the art that was/now read on/of mind art/though I have to hide to reveal.” 5 The end of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Joyce’s text reads: “his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “ while Phillips extracts: “And I said yes— yes, I will yes” 6 From Johnny Carrera’s “Introduction” in Pictorial Webster’s, Page x. 7 Racine did this to a degree as well but not with the same fervor.
Simply looking at the images on each page, removed from nearly all text, readers are liberated to develop their own stories. Perhaps this narrative involves two animals looking at each other across the page. Another story can be created from the juxtaposition of images on page 281 where a pool table is placed next to a (porbeagle) shark, conjuring, perhaps, the idea of a pool shark, and so on. Alongside historic images, Carrera has inserted his own engravings into the book, creating additional narratives like those on pages 274 & 275 which serve as a kind of secret key to the book, complete with a bicycle wheel (a reference to the readymade sculpture by Marcel Duchamp), a pipe (a similar nod to Rene Magritte), a hat labeled ‘curious’ (not unlike the hat belonging to the man in the Curious George books) and even faith (a dog) and folly (a dolphin). These juxtapositions lead to an expanded experience with images and narratives for the viewer to create. Carrera continues this thread in Life’s Work by presenting overlapping prints, huge book panels, videos and printed sails, creating the effect of walking into the Dictionary itself. The reconfiguration of books by artists is nothing new: in the 1980s, Quebec artist Robert Racine began using the Le Petit Robert dictionary as material for work on
sound and the textures of language; German artist Dieter Roth used books as collage material and also ground them into sausages or Literaturwurst in the 1960s and ’70s; and more recently writer Jonathan Safran Foer created Tree of Codes (2010) based on Bruno Schultz’s story collection The Street of Crocodiles (1934). Safran Foer cut out words from the original to create a new text, even deriving his title, a la Phillips, by removing letters from the original. However, what is truly unique about Phillips and Carrera is the “life’s work” quality to their projects, their dedication and insistence upon returning again and again to the same book, culling new material, harvesting, re-combining. 7 So it is from two 19th-century tomes, one British and one American, that epic life’s works, magnum opuses, were born. And together these projects not only offer insights into the working process of two artists but also allow viewers to rethink books, images and the nature of time. Nineteenth-century French critic and poet Stephane Mallarme wrote: “Everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book.” But perhaps the opposite is also true and everything in a book exists to end up in the world. Denise Markonish Curator
Life’s Work: Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera March 23, 2013–January 20, 2014 Curated by Denise Markonish images: Johnny Carrera, Pictorial Webster’s Dictionary, page 275, 2009. Tom Phillips. A Humument, pages 22 and 4, 2nd version, 1973–ongoing. Johnny Carrera, Standard Edition of Pictorial Webster’s Dictionary, 2009. Image: Brian Harris. Johnny Carrera, The Little Prince and the Big Lever, screen print, 2012. cover: Tom Phillips. A Humument, page 266, 2nd version, 1973–ongoing. This exhibition is supported by a grant from the Artist's Resource Trust with additional funding provided by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry.
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