The Coffee Table, Revisited 

Wednesday, Dec 18 2002

Tom Knechtel’s oil paintings are spellbinding. In On Wanting To Grow Horns: The Little Theater of Tom Knechtel (Fellows of Contemporary Art, 128 pages, $45), time disjoints as one lingers, childlike, over his cornucopia of visual delights, his phantasmagoric bestiary, his promiscuous hallucinations, his ecstatic lyricism. In Lessons in the Theatre: Ejaculations, a transparent rhinocerosunicorn, his muscular heart wrapped in ribbon, has his eyes stung by a multitude of wasps as he ejaculates a spray of flowery semen that doubles as a horizon line for a miniature forest and town. Elsewhere in the piece, a monkey tips his hat, a griffin dances beneath a velvet theater curtain, a duck and squirrel kiss, and a gluttonous burgomaster says, ”Peace, crying crocodile!“ Past the boundary of the painting, two grappling wrestlers hang from an actual metal signpost.

This truly marvelous art catalog, which accompanies Knechtel‘s midcareer retrospective currently exhibiting at the Ben Maltz Gallery, is a rich and teeming book: In addition to the 60 glorious color plates and the numerous black-and-white ones, the book includes essays by Ron Platt and Anne Ayres, a prose response (penis-meditation? Diatribe? Dialectical-pornography?) by Benjamin Weissman, a commissioned poem by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard and a poem by Amy Gerstler. Knechtel (who, I later learned, is also a Weekly staffer) has influences from such sources as Theatre du Soleil, kabuki, Alice in Wonderland, 18th-century zoological prints, Hieronymus Bosch, ’50s and ‘60s Disney animation and, most recently, the Kathakali theater of southern India. These multifarious elements fuse to form a splendid circus of allegorical abundance.

The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which began in 1858 with the private collection of Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter, has grown into a strange and sublime assortment of medical and anatomical displays. Within the museum’s walls rest the 7-foot, 6-inch skeleton of an anonymous Kentucky man (the tallest human skeleton on display in North America), the connected liver of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, an X-ray of a toy battleship lodged in the esophagus of an infant, the wax model head of Madame Dimanche who, at the age of 76, began to grow a 9.8-inch horn from the center of her skull, and many other such curiosities and aberrations of the human body.

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Mutter Museum (Blast, 192 pages, $35) the book is not a straightforward presentation of the museum‘s collections, but rather an assortment of photographs shot by contemporary artists, interspersed with medical photographs kept in the museum’s archives. The result is, fittingly, a rather freakish book, both in subject matter and in organization. Some of the artistic inclinations seem a tad misguided, even melodramatic; the most grotesque example is when William Wegman‘s ubiquitous (and insufferable) mutts pose in a few photos while human remains act as mere props for his doggy fashion show. However, despite the book’s peculiar mode of presentation, the cumulative effect of these images subtly deforms one‘s own sense of corporeality and self. Staring at ”Multiple Enchodroma in a Male,“ a 19th-century photo of a 20-year-old man with bulbous hands larger than his head, it’s hard not to notice your own fingers (intricate and tenuous flesh) gently turning the pages.

Charm and poise commingle in Photographic Memory (Powerhouse, 160 pages, $65), a collection of William Claxton‘s personal anecdotes and black-and-white photography. As a young photographer at UCLA in the early ’50s, Claxton began photographing musicians in the city‘s ascendant jazz scene, and many of these images are inseparable from the identities of their subjects, such as his astonishing shots of the young Chet Baker.

From the recording studios, Claxton moved easily onto the sets and sound stages of Hollywood, and from there into the lives and homes of some of the most intriguing personalities of the last 50 years. His visual acuity and generosity are apparent in every image, most of which have never before been published: Igor Stravinsky in the midst of a lascivious laugh, Marlene Dietrich in the dressing room, Steve McQueen warming himself by a fire, Andy Warhol slumped and uncomfortable on a couch, Peggy Moffitt (Claxton’s wife) with an impish smile on a windy Malibu beach -- Claxton‘s photographs dull the edge of the sharpest cynic’s blade, and leave behind a blend of nostalgia and beauty.

Like a beautiful photo book, the best reference books can draw you into their pages with something like enchantment. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases, almanacs . . . spread lazily on a coffee table, cold hard facts assume an almost aesthetic appeal. The updated fourth edition of The New York Public Library Desk Reference (Hyperion, 999 pages, $35) is perhaps the most diverse (not to mention startling and pleasurable) single volume of information in the English language.

Yes, there are myriad pragmatic and applicable facts in the book: how to carve a turkey, help your dog if he goes into shock, or draw up a bill of sale. Sure, you might actually need to know where to put the oyster fork on a properly set dining table, how to write distress signals for passing planes (beware ”LL,“ which means ”All‘s Well!“), or discover who exactly the Angry Young Men of Literature were. Still, the true joy of the NYPLDR lies in its leisurely uselessness, the smorgasbord of delectable knowledge (Saint Raymund Nonnatus is the patron saint of the ”falsely accused,“ there are 94 acceptable two-letter words in Scrabble, Albanian is closely related to no other Indo-European language) that adds a strange and savory backdrop to the everyday.

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