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The Coffee Table

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.”

An alternative to the typically sweeping, weighty, all-inclusive coffee-table books that tone your biceps as you lift them is Virginia Comer’s “Urban Details, Los Angeles” series (Balcony Press, 59 pages, $15), sweet, pretty little books that zoom in on architectural details around the city. Each title covers one topic: 50 pages of streetlights or stairways or fountains, with bits of history woven around black-and-white pictures pasted into photo corners, as in a family album. The three together are part living-room accessory (elegant, cloth-bound titles with a satin ribbon to mark your place) and part guide book (offering directions to points of interest). At $15 each they are a bit pricey, especially given that some of the blurbs are quite brief (two lines on the Rodeo Drive staircase) or presented without accompanying photos. Still, these books are a nice, historical and aesthetic resource.

Tiny, barely perceptible, horizontal arrows grace the cover of I Am a Bullet: Scenes From an Accelerating Culture (Crown, 192 pages, $35), and they multiply on the inside cover, suggesting the subtle, increasing acceleration of our lives. This edgy book, by Dean Kuipers and Doug Aitken, combines photography, kinetic graphics and text to convey individual stories, from around the world, about how speed transforms human identity. The nine essays move from the mounting desire to be heard as a unique voice among youth in Japan, to the sudden, rapid invasion of gang violence -- filtered via the media -- on an isolated reservation in Wanblee, South Dakota. The concept of I Am a Bullet is slightly confusing, and the high-tech layout -- crowded pages with computer-typeface superimposed over busy photos -- makes the journalistic pieces difficult to read, which is a shame, because some of the interviews are gripping. The book‘s design quickly evokes a sense of vertigo, but perhaps that’s the point.

One of the single most important cultural factors responsible for the acceleration of pop-culture and the “quick-cut” aesthetic on television is, of course, MTV. Steve Reiss and Neil Feineman‘s Thirty Frames Per Second: The Visionary Art of the Music Video (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 272 pages, $40) showcases more than 400 color and black-and-white stills from legendary music videos, accompanied by short profiles of the directors. Given the premise -- that the music video as a “hyper-global mass media artform” has influenced all aspects of pop culture, from sports and ad copy to fashion -- the brief commentary leaves the reader wanting more about the director’s vision. Its scope is fairly comprehensive, but in the end the book is mostly eye candy, a visual testament to the power of these minimovies.

Drawing on a more classical tradition, artist Kerry James Marshall documents the African-American urban experience in striking, politically charged paintings, enveloping graceful, jet-black figures -- often juxtaposed against images from newspapers, history books, pulp novels, comics and film -- in a world of bold, primary colors. Raised in L.A., Marshall moved on to New York and Chicago, and now his work is a rarer sight here. A new collection of his paintings, Kerry James Marshall (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 128 pages, $30), makes that fact a little less troubling. A running conversation between Marshall and fellow artist Arthur Jafa breathes life and depth into this slim book.

Perusing American Edge (Arena Editions, 199 pages, $60), a fat book of photojournalism from the ‘60s and ’70s printed on thick, porous, cream-colored paper, one wonders when, if at all, photographer Steve Schapiro got any sleep back then. His 90 black-and-white, documentary-style pictures originally appeared in major magazines -- portraits of Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Truman Capote from the covers of Life magazine are now considered classics in their genre -- and as he travels the country capturing migrant workers in Arkansas, Andy Warhol in New York or Martin Luther King Jr.‘s Memphis hotel room hours after the civil rights leader was shot, Schapiro emerges as an omnipresent shadow cast onto the political and social turmoil of that decade.

Star Culture: The collected interviews from Dazed & Confused Magazine (Phaidon, 303 pages, $30) is a wonderfully dizzying book, both visually and content-wise (the cover itself looks like a giant tab of acid). There are a few photos dropped throughout the book, but mostly it consists of columns and columns of text from the pop-fashion magazine that started in 1993 “as a direct assault on the tired excesses of the British-style press,” as editors Mark Sanders and Jefferson Hack write. Interviews with Iggy Pop, Damien Hirst, Oasis, Kate Moss, Noam Chomsky and Ice-T appear alongside lesser-known personalities such as the mysterious South African performance artist Bruce Louden, who, it has been reported, severs his own body parts and showcases them in galleries around the world. (His interview in this book was conducted over the Internet, as Louden had allegedly cut off his tongue.) It’s a bit frustrating that there is no introduction beyond a few paragraphs printed in tiny italicized text over slanted blue pinstripes (nearly impossible to read!), and one wishes there were more contextual information about Dazed & Confused. But in this way, the “situations in print” (two-way interviews, fax interviews, self-interviews, even invented interviews) stand alone as an “alternative voice to challenge head-on the vagaries of modern star culture.”

The ViennaLos Angeles architect Richard Neutra‘s highly recognizable, sleek, modern post-and-beam-construction homes can be seen over and over again in gorgeous color and black-and-white photographs in the massive Neutra, Complete Works (Taschen, 464 pages, $150), edited by Peter Goessel. This is one book that can be judged, in part, by its cover -- a vast stretch of heavy pressed plywood that left tiny splinters in the tips of my fingers. If this mammoth 13-pound tome had legs, it could alone function as a coffee table. But it’s worth its weight in wood: Every single Neutra building ever constructed is included -- with commentary in English, French and German -- plus blueprints, sketches and maps noting Neutra dwellings around the U.S. and Europe. (Not surprisingly, L.A. is the only city warranting its own map.) This truly beautiful book opens with an essay by Neutra‘s architect son Dion.

If you’re still looking and haven‘t yet maxed your budget, check out these other notable books: Richard Misrach: The Sky Book, Arena Editions, 144 pages, $65; Ruth Bernhard: Between Art & Life, Chronicle Books, 159 pages, $30; The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Oxford University Press, 864 pages, $50; Greene & Greene, Phaidon Press, 240 pages, $75; The Big Book of the ’70s (written by Jonathan Vankin, who happens to be my husband), Paradox Press, 192 pages, $15; Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900--2000, University of California Press, 344 pages, $35; Framework Houses, MIT Press, 350 pages, $65; Iconic L.A., Stories of L.A.‘s Most Memorable Buildings, Balcony Press, 120 pages, $30; Boring Postcards: USA, Phaidon Press, 176 pages, $20; 1000 on 42nd Street, PowerHouse Cultural Entertainment, 300 pages, $35.