By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Okay. Twelve books. Two pages. And four days to go until Christmas. Take this down:
Each of the 50 grainy, hand-tinted color plates in Robert ParkeHarrison‘s stunning collection of mixed-media photographs, The Architect’s Brother (Twin Palms, 136 pages, $60), incorporates elements of performance, sculptureinvention and painting, and is said to take days to prepare -- the props alone could be in a museum. ParkeHarrison, who works with his wife, appears in every photo in the same tattered black-and-white suit, in natural settings damaged by modern civilization (a barren field beneath a lonely, sprawling sky; a murky, polluted swamp) and in each photo he is caught up in some impossible task involving an elaborate, crude contraption (a cloud cleaner, a rainmaker) while making futile attempts to integrate himself with -- and heal -- nature. The images are desperate, surreal and haunting, but they are also funny: ParkeHarrison pushes an enormous IBM Selectric typewriter ball across an open, dried-up pasture; he nails a crack in the sky shut with boards; he literally mends the Earth, sewing a wide rift in the ground together with a giant-size needle and thread. Given the mythic nature of his pictures, the artist‘s statements about the disintegration of the environment are a bit explicit, but it’s not enough to deflect the beauty and force of his photographs.
If ParkeHarrison‘s photos are remote and theatrical, Chris Verene’s are down-home. For him, anyway. The American artist‘s first book, Chris Verene (Twin Palms, 112 pages, $60), is a collection of large, perfectly square, in-your-face color portraits: lush, distorted, even freakish images that lovingly portray the narrow world of his family and friends in the Midwestern railroad town of Galesburg, Illinois. A single line of Verene’s handwriting scrawled over each shot of family members doing ordinary things (“Steve in the Garage,” “Travis and the New Dog”) leads the reader on a first-person tour of these rundown homes and sunken faces, offering a voyeuristic chronicle of poverty, divorce and death. While Verene‘s pictures are definitely composed, they bleed a candid sincerity: This is the way people live; this is who they are. But there’s an odd dissonance between the grim subject matter and the bright, unapologetic colors (the book is wrapped in tones of banana yellow and watermelon red) and as such, Verene‘s intentions aren’t entirely clear: Is he mocking his family, or the sincerity with which he presents them? Perhaps it‘s just that in such heavily ironic times, the straight sincerity itself is what seems bizarre. In the end, these potentially depressing photos have the opposite effect, and together present an affirmation of humanness, in all its quirky imperfection.
Laurie Brown’s Recent Terrains, Terraforming the American West (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 95 pages, $25 paperback) is a narrow, slender selection of stark, black-and-white panoramic landscapes documenting ever-changing Southern California suburbia -- mainly Orange County, home to photographer Brown. There are no people in these pictures, no traces of human activity at all, and Brown‘s long, low shots of empty dirt clearings feel like science fiction. Flipping through the pages, the story of the urbanization of the American West unfolds like a turn-of-the-century flip book -- the landscape literally and visually morphs like a sand painting. At first, the only artificial elements we see are tire tracks in dirt roads and occasional telephone poles dotting mountain tops. But soon streets are paved, cars fill the foreground, and snug tract-housing developments crowd the horizon. In the last photo -- a stunning, curvaceous shot of a concrete-laden freeway -- the only natural elements that remain are tiny tufts of scrub brush in the distance, resting beneath a low lid of smog.
Kitsch never really goes out of style, at least not in L.A. Two new books celebrate that fact, and offer up colorful, historical interpretations of the loud, the plastic and the patterned. Sven A. Kirsten’s The Book of Tiki (Taschen, 287 pages, $30), with its padded cardboard cover, casts the reader as an “urban archaeologist” and traces the journey of the Tiki from the South Seas Islands -- American soldiers stationed there during World War II picked up the exotic idols as souvenirs -- to contemporary Jersey strip malls. The 680 glossy illustrations and rare photos show how Polynesian pop blossomed into a 1950s suburban craze offering a prosperous but otherwise restrictive society a means of cutting loose (i.e., Tiki lounges and flaming drinks after work, loud shirts that -- gasp! -- need not be tucked in). Irreverent, fabulously fun, and packaged, as always with Taschen, beautifully.
The Aloha Shirt (Beyond Words, 211 pages, $45) focuses on a microcosm of Island culture -- that one, titular fashion accessory -- but unearths an entire subculture around it. Author Dale Hope, who grew up around Hawaii‘s garment industry, conducted dozens of interviews with old-timers -- designers, cutters, seamstresses, manufacturers from the ’30s through the ‘50s -- and pieces together their tales to show how the Hawaiian-shirt industry rose from a single-sewing-machine family operation weaving island images on cloth for tourists, to what it is today: an international fashion statement which, as Hope writes, captures on its canvas the “spirit of place.”