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
The Gospel According to ESPN (Hyperion, 245 pages, $40) is a stupendously uneven book -- and with a bad cover to boot -- but it’s nevertheless a somewhat genius attempt to make sense of the bizarre cultural phenomenon of sports. Broken into five chapters -- ”Prophets,“ ”Fallen Angels,“ ”Saints,“ ”Saviors“ and ”Gods“ -- and brimming with trivia, memorabilia, cartoons and commentary, the book‘s basic conceit goes something like this: Sports is kind of similar to religion, sort of. This vague edict lends itself to such expected sentences as ”Avery Brundage . . . worshiped at the altar of Olympianism“ or ”Bobby Knight . . . was a vengeful god, a butt-kicking Old Testament--type god, quick to anger and eager to punish.“
Like much of the Bible itself, ESPN’s Gospel lacks real coherence, but the book draws strength from its ability to offer doses of impassioned sports scripture for just about everyone: to spin improbable yarns (Ty Cobb, on Christmas Eve in a Georgia cemetery, furiously searching for his own tomb, the biggest and best in the graveyard), to unearth unforgettable quotes (an aging Muhammad Ali whispering in the ring to George Foreman, ”You‘ve been following me since you were a little boy. Now you must meet me, your master.“) and to glorify the miraculous (Triple Crown winner Secretariat’s heart was 18 pounds, nearly twice the weight of an average horse heart!).
In Spoon (Phaidon, 448 pages, $75) 10 curators from various esteemed positions in the world of contemporary design have selected 100 designers who ”have broken new ground internationally in the last five years.“ The book‘s cover is made of galvanized steel -- that perennial favorite -- and bent into a supple wave to express society’s current love of curvature. It‘s a pretty thing to look at, though somewhat clumsy. The work inside ranges from Bauhaus simplicity to baroque lavishness, from the innovative to the absurd (a trampoline coffee table?). Hybridization seems a major trend: a clothes-hanger light bulb, a lamppunching bag, a chair that uses a stack of books for one leg.
Flipping through Spoon’s glossy pages triggers a deeply ambivalent reaction; the emotional impact of the countless couches, lamps, watches, shoes, computers and, yes, spoons is at turns trivial and profound. Should we read this book as a sumptuous IKEA catalog or as an avant-garde exploration of our material existence? But sooner or later, something in Spoon will catch your eye -- whether it is Shin and Tomoko Azumi‘s gravity-defying sofa, Kennet Williamsson’s painterly ceramic blueberry baskets, or Thomas Heatherwick‘s remarkable benches in Newcastle, where strips of recycled-glass paving blocks are peeled back to reveal hidden light sources beneath the street and simultaneously to form an elegant place to sit, allowing the metaphysical to seep into the physical.
If it wasn’t obvious already, Kurt Cobain has become the official lost child for an entire generation, the archetypal troubled youth, America‘s enfant melancolique. While the Kurt Cobain Journals (Riverhead, 304 pages, $30) are doomed to pale in comparison next to the precise inarticulations of Nirvana’s music, the book does capture Cobain‘s angstful earnestness, and his longing for the idealism of the ’60s, forever tainted by his deep cynicism of the contemporary world.
The Weekly profiled Krazy & Ignatz -- 1925-1926 (Fantagraphics, 120 pages, $15) earlier in the year, so here we‘ll keep it short and sweet: The first in a series of Krazy Kat reissues by the remarkable Fantagraphics (a publishing supercollider of the visual and literary arts), with cover design by the inimitable Chris Ware, these comic strips are mandatory possessions for people with eyes.
Andre de Dienes met aspiring model Norma Jeane Baker in 1945, and -- sparks already flying -- the two set off on a road trip across the West so that Dienes could photograph his ”earthy angel“ in natural settings. These photographs, and the many others in their long involvement (a romantic relationship followed by friendship), document the fresh, dazzling woman and her transformation into a visual icon, into Marilyn Monroe. A wealth of previously unknown anecdotes and photographs (discovered after Dienes’ death in 1985) have been lavishly assembled in Marilyn (Taschen, 240 pages, $200). The box set also includes Dienes‘ 608-page Marilyn memoirs, his complete Monroe photographs (nearly 1,000 contact-size prints), and 24 magazine covers shot by Dienes; the set is instantly a crown jewel in the world of Marilyn collectibles.
”Painting is not dead“ seems to be the general claim of Vitamin P -- New Perspectives in Painting (Phaidon, 352 pages, $70). In a smart, lucid and tidy introductory essay, Barry Schwabsky argues for the continued contemporary significance of painting, guides us through the breakdown of various absolutisms in regard to the what, why, when, how and where of contemporary painting, and finally claims that ”Better than any of the other media typically employed by today’s artists, painting lends itself to eloquent ambivalence towards its own historicity.“
That said, on to the paintings. Toba Khedoori‘s spatially devastating walls and windows, Francis Alys’ charming depiction of a man with a vase growing from his knee, Elizabeth Peyton‘s romanticized celebrity portraiture of Prince William, the visceral visual dramatics of Adriana Varejao’s ”Axulejaria de Tapete em Carne Viva“ . . . it‘s a highly stimulating (at times infuriating) selection of work. The editors never fully explain the mechanisms behind their ”rigorous selection process“ other than explaining that ”distinguished“ persons (critics, curators, museum directors) nominated painters ”who have emerged internationally since the 1990s.“ But Vitamin P gives us a marvelous taste of the works of these 114 artists, each accompanied by a few flattering and insightful paragraphs. This scattershot method nullifies the possibility of some smashingly brilliant theory of what is happening in the contemporary art ”scene,“ but works wonderfully with Schwabsky’s belief that such overarching theories are merely useful fictions. It‘s up to the viewer then to mull and ponder.