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Vera & Linus. Jesse Ball & Thordis Björnsdottir, Nyhil Press, 2006 ($20.00).
Vera & Linus are friends or lovers who wield magical power over the world, which they treat as dross and speak of in awe. A human skin coat is "Aztec," a fashion Vera fancies. Linus is really quite good with a knife. The hand of a child who never cries becomes an ornament for a picnic. Several more are a windchime. The sun that shines through a scattering covey is a spectacle of note. They cast stones for hope in the sea. They pluck hearts to break spells. They loaf by painting wrinkles on faces. They save their greatest seductions and tricks for each other.
Ball and Björnsdottir excel in understatement and whimsy, but their greatest achievement is in rendering the perverse and the drab in a single turn of phrase, which they do on nearly every page. It is never too much; never too candied; never beyond the realms of belief, and yet never very real, which, in the end, is a relief, but one that is delightfully earned. I felt I was in the Oregonian woods one minute, and Louis XIV's courtyards the next.
In the midst of the fantastical we find we have explored the connections between love and cruelty, between selfishness and communion with the otherly, and between kindness and deception. One thing, however, is sure: if I could take a bath in their schemes, I would. Daily.
» Rob Baumann
Rob Baumann is a community member who also happens to work at Woodland Pattern as Bookstore Manager.
Letters to Wendy's. Joe Wenderoth, Verse Press, 2000, ($14)
This book is oldat least by my nerdy, elitist bookseller standardsbut how many of you have heard of it? And yet, many of you would love it: it's a perfect quickie for avid readers in a diverse, urban setting such as Riverwest.
Wenderoth's flash fictions, disguised as letters to the iconoclastic (if you will) fast-food chain, discuss everything from dealing with employees who are beavers and the possibility of Wendy's Delivery, to global war (which, in retrospect of course, seems especially foreboding) and a sagging hope in Marxism. His prose is one part didactic, one part internal dialogue, and tempered by a humorous obsession with life's quixotic nature. What do we do, after all, when "NO thought is worthy of clarification," when all interactions are mere opinion? Why, we write letters to Wendy's.
This is not to say that the work is completely bleak: Wenderoth uses hopelessness as a charm to coax us from complacency and sends us back to the world disoriented, questioning everything. And that's a good thing, right?
» Rob Baumann
Rob Baumann is a community member who also happens to work at Woodland Pattern as Bookstore Manager.
Schablone Berlin. Caroline Koebel, Kyle Schlesinger, eds. Chax Press ($16.95).
Schablone Berlin, a recent book on Berlin stencil art is a welcome
addition to the increasingly widespread genre of street art. The
book focuses its attention on the stencils themselves and features
over 100 color images that sample the dynamic political and street
art scene of Berlin. The colorful and thought provoking stencil
designs that adorn the often cold and sterile buildings are
instantly appreciable and it becomes easy to side with the artists,
rather than the law that labels this type of art a criminal act. A
book such as this reminds us that street art is, at its core, a
political act, a means of asserting one's voice, and an alternative
perspective into the urban landscape that is largely dominated by
corporate advertisements and state-enforced regulations. Street art
also allows artists to communicate to anyone who happens to walk by
the art. With this in mind, the editors of the book take us on a
rambling journey through the streets of Berlin to view the walls,
sidewalks and other painted surfaces throughout the German city. It
comes as little surprise that the images found in Schablone Berlin
are often far more interesting than the much of the art one would
ever find within the confines of a gallery or museum.
By documenting the city walls, the editors of the book have provided
a window into Berlin's streets, its culture, its influences, and the
concerns of its artistic community. Some of the stencil images speak
of resistance to war and U.S.-led imperialism. Others focus on
popular culture and its influence throughout the world. Other
designs are more surprising in their approach, appearing at first
less socially critical and apolitical but in reality call for deeper
consideration. For example, one of the more stunning images is a
stencil design of a wolf; the juxtaposition of a wild animal in an
urban setting allows one to consider the implications of a modern,
industrial world where non-human animals, outside of domestic pets,
have become an afterthought.
The true importance of this book, however, is not simply its
documentation of Berlin street art culture, but its ability to
inspire others to participate and advance street art within their
own communities. This book provides one with a number of ideas to
create one's own stencils. Not only does it survey a wide range of
themes, but the range of photographs exhibit multiple examples of
placement for an artist to consider within the urban landscape. By
doing so, Schablone Berlin provides a basis from which to critique
one's own community, and calls one to consider the proliferation of
street art or the lack of it in their communities, and the reasons
for this absence in certain cities.
Personally, I have always felt a sense of comfort and relief while
in a city that is covered in street art. Cities such as Berlin,
Montreal, New York City, Barcelona, and Melbourne are incredibly
enhanced by the street art and become more vibrant and exciting.
On the other side, cities that lack this form of public expression seem to be hiding something. These places, with their sanitized walls and false sense of order always feel repressive to me, if not politically, then certainly culturally. More often than not, a city devoid of street art is the result of draconian laws that criminalize street art; at the same time, a city devoid of street art makes one question the public's willingness to be politically and artistically vocal. This book gives notice that many artists and activists in Berlin are not willing to hide their opinions, even in the face of increasing efforts to restrain and punish the purveyors of street art: the editors relay in their postscript that in April, 2005 Berlin hosted the first International Anti-Graffiti Conference, which called for harsher penalties for street artists and explored tactics to stop graffiti.
If indeed government sentiment against street art is becoming globalized, the medium itself has long since done the same. Very few modern cities in the world are free of street art and one of the fascinating aspects of Schablone Berlin is its international, globalized context. Many of the designs are not specific to German culture; rather they belong to an international visual language of dissent. If I was to glance at Schablone Berlin without prior knowledge of its focus on documenting Berlin street art, I could easily mistake the stencil images for those of New York, Melbourne, Rome, or any other metropolis with prolific stencil art. We can attribute this to a number of reasons: the pop culture icons displayed in many of the designs, the fact that text of the designs is often in English, the inclusion of recognizable political figures. The availability of designs on the Internet and other stencil books has influenced artists and helped to create a more univeral stencil language. Stencil artists themselves have traveled to different cities around the world to spread their art. Even the simplicity of stencil art is universal and the very aesthetics make it a common language rather than one that is often specific to one region of the world. In many regards, stencil art is similar to punk rock where the structure is relatively the same no matter what corner of the world it comes from. The visual portion of Schablone Berlin emphasizes these commonalities, documenting the styles and political content of stencil art in a global context, rather than illustrating Berlin as a unique case study.
If I have any criticism of Schablone Berlin, it is the text, which merely discusses radical street art and activism in a very abstract and general sense. Other stencil art books such as Hasta La Victoria, Stencil! (Guido Indij, La Marca Editora, 2004), which documents stencils in Argentina, focuses the text on the history of street art within that society, and the recent uprising. The editors of Schablone Berlin could have learned something from such an approach. With the relatively recent unification of East and West Berlin (Communist and Capitalist), Berlin is one of the most interesting cities in the world and the book could have explored more of its unique political and artistic history. For instance, the editors do not distinguish between the stencils located in the former East Berlin as compared to the former West. The book lacks any reference to or images of the Berlin Wall, arguably one of the most important public surfaces for political art in the second half of the Twentieth Century. It could have explored in more depth how a city like Berlin, with such a unique and potent political and artistic history, blends in with the global phenomenon of street art and why a street art culture specific to Berlin's present environment is lacking in many of the selected images. In contrast, it would have been fascinating had the editors spent more time discussing the history of art and activism within Berlin and how the present street art either adds to this history or diverges from past conventions. As well, the writing in the book could have explored the history of past radical art in the city that stood in opposition to Hitler's rise to power, such as the collage art of John Heartfield. In the 1930s, Heartfield's anti-fascist images covered the walls of the city causing him to flee for his life to Prague, where he continued his graphic campaign against Hitler. His art was directly linked to the politics and culture of Germany and it would have been interesting to hear more of the editors' take on how today's stencil art in Berlin responds to the current climate within the city and country. If anything, the stencil designs within Schablone Berlin imply that Germany, like many nation-states is becoming more a part of the global mono-culture that dulls the distinct differences between individual countries. In this regard, the documentation of the Berlin street art scene today becomes all the more important in addressing this point.
However, this criticism aside on the text, Schablone Berlin is a very commendable effort and the book is sure to inspire simply by the power of the images. Digital cameras have allowed many photographers to take thousands of pictures without worrying about the cost of film. Artists and activists can now easily archive the street art that emerges every day. The choice that the editors made in documenting the walls of Berlin is vital and they have thankfully sought out a press to share these important images of resistance with the rest of us. The end result will be a deeper appreciation for street art and an inspiration for many to stencil the streets of the cities that they live in.
» Nicolas Lampert
Nicolas Lampert is co-editor of Peace Signs: the Anti-War Movement Illustrated (Edition Olms) and works on the collaborative stencil zine project "Cut and Paint" (www.cutandpaint.org)
Playing Bodies. Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw. New York: Granary Books, 2004.
If Charles Bernstein is the Johnny Carson of Language poets, then Bob Perelman is probably the David Letterman. Through the years his corpus of work has sustained a sense of humor that interlaces itself with politics, trends, and the popular language. For his latest book, Playing Bodies, Perelman has written poems that respond to a series of playful paintings by his wife Francie Shaw. The 52 paintings, in white and blue, display three bendable figurines (a man, a woman, a silly dinosaur) in various poses: tumbling, wrestling, riding, grinding, waltzing. Perelman's poems interact with the paintings as the figures interact with each othertussling, flipping, pile-drivingto the extent that much of the poems' humor would be lost if the paintings were not present. The paintings are at once erotic and violent, funny and disturbing, but Perelman's poems often deftly sway the reader's interpretation to one side or the other: "You laid siege/ and now I/ trample your plan." Some of these vignettes are laugh-out-loud funny, some are wry, some bear a striking resemblance to gender politics. This transparent interaction between the poem and the artwork is a welcome, colorful oddity in a publishing world that seems to have disavowed itself of the illustrated book as a used-up genre, like rock 'n roll. Perelman and Shaw demonstrate that this is simply not true by straight up rocking, straight up kicking it back and forth.
» David Pavelich
Poet David Pavelich lives in Chicago where he publishes Answer Tag Home Press in limited editions.