Monday, November 29, 2010
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Friday, November 12, 2010
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Dollface, now exhibiting at the Museum of Childhood, is a study on the many ways of showing. The display of a dozen photographs of nine different dolls extends beyond the museum’s mostly unseen doll collection — portraits of the dolls, taken by Craig Deane, are the memories of childhood, the reflections of societal projection and the representatives of systemic ordering.
Of the 8000 dolls that are catalogued in the museum’s basement, Deane selected a handful to bring to life through large-scale portraiture. Looking out to the audience from metre-tall photographs, the dolls are now larger, living versions of themselves; breathtaking specimens of play and perception. By photographing the dolls from an upward angle, Deane seems to have captured the objects in real moments, suggesting that the role of child and toy, once hierarchical, is now an egalitarian one. Long separated from the children who played with them and now unearthed from the storage toy box, the little wax-faced and porcelain things become mysteriously fleshy and human-like, making innocent, surprised eye-contact that grazes the edge of sinister.
Concerned with how people represent themselves over time, the exhibition displays portraits of dolls that were made over 150 years. Though the photographs are not shown chronologically, the limited selection of portraits makes the historical transformation of Dollface obvious. Withdrawn, sad-eyed girls of the 1800s perk into all smiles and red lips by 1930.
The exhibition encourages comparisons and urges viewers to consider past and current relationships with life-like toys. An ebony-painted porcelain face called Cosmopolitan Doll, made in 1930, is the first portrait in the series. Paired next to an identically sized photo of a peach-colored doll, their features are strikingly similar. Despite the fact that they were made 20 years apart (one in Germany and the other in England), they have the same kewpie curled crown of molded hair and both, surprisingly, have brown eyes instead of blue. Encased within a round bubble of a face, they have the classic features of 20th Century babydolls and foreshadow the remarkably unchanged face of American Girl dolls. The only difference is that Cosmpolitan Doll is painted dark brown and the other is clearly Caucasian. Both have unnaturally womanly red lips. Though painted a similar shade of red to the white doll’s, Cosmopolitan’s mouth is unfaithful to her actual lip line, suggesting the impossibility, even on porcelain, of a cupid’s bow as flawless as the one on the lips of the pale-faced twin to the right.
Deane writes that “cataloguing and storing objects is just as fascinating as the objects themselves.” Each photograph is titled by the doll’s museum reference number and store location. By including the reference number with the portrait, Deane toys with the idea of the unaffected organization of emotional attachment. Besides year and place, very little information is attached each doll, and with titles such as “T.186-1931BGML05172,” it is only natural to start making categorizations based on the information at hand.
By building a time-conscious narrative from the museum collection, Dollface shows a portion of the V&A toy box numerically as well as a social history of self-perception and projection through play. Although there is much to show, the exhibition lacks transparency regarding Deane’s choice of dolls. With an inexplicably limited selection of portraits, the exhibition lends itself to more questions than answers. If all except two portraits are white, what does that say about the museum’s overall collection? What dolls remain as history’s playthings? What — or whom— are we playing with?
Sunday, November 7, 2010
I am a relentless book-buyer. The habit began in childhood, when after refusing to buy outfits from Gap Kids, my mom took me to Reading Reptile. Together, my brother and I wandered the bookshop, jaws agape, touching covers to our cheeks, catching starchy whiffs of thick paper stock, completely shocked that we were allowed to touch so many beautiful books.[i] We racked up a substantial but justifiable bill: “You will grow out of clothes,” my mother said. “But you won’t outgrow books.”
Number 13 was the first McSweeney’s book I bought.[ii] The intricate gold-embossing; the crisp smell of creamy paper; the muted complexities of a Chris Ware cartoon consumed me. In Number 13, I rediscovered a part of my childhood. Michael Beirut similarly writes: “It took me right back to the way the Sunday paper used to arrive on my childhood doorstep, and it conjured the same sense of excitement.” The issue was the complex embodiment of my twitterpated childhood, and future whispers of adulthood heart-slaughter that captured and united anyone who engaged in it.[iii]
McSweeney’s issues are quarterly evidence of an odd, nurturing community — one that understands the wonder of books not only as literary tomes but as beautiful objects that reveal more each time you look. By recruiting contributions of unwanted works to the first McSweeney’s Quarterly, the small publishing house named after a peculiar man from Dave Eggers’ childhood, has further developed its book-making family by aggregating a sub-community of McSweeney’s appreciators in tortoise-shell glasses, who ignore that print appears to be dying. Recently released, The Art of McSweeney’s, chooses to acknowledge this very sentiment: “We believe…that the attention paid to the book-as-object has a role in ensuring the survival of the words within that book’s covers,” writes Eggers, assuring the McSweeney’s cultish gaggle that the small wonder-that-could isn’t going anywhere.
The Art…is a covetable reference. At first glance, it’s no production feat,[iv] but the book is a clever, humorous conversation of how McSweeney’s came to fruition. It starts at the beginning, with Eggers’ first typed plea for submissions, gradually unraveling to tell its own irreverent fairytale as only McSweeney’s can, and that’s what makes the book special. Organized chronologically (every issue, plus projects in-between), the narration is made up of interviews and dialogues of every person involved with McSweeney’s in the form of one, effortless, enjoyable, more-ish conversation. New voices are introduced with every issue, coming and going as their names are called, bringing to life the thriving pack of book-as-object lovers.
There’s no such thing as a 20-year no-hitter; McSweeney’s isn’t all good stuff. In its effort to print and publish the wonderfully unwanted, editors have made the nerds a more exclusive, elitist group of well read hipsters, uninviting anyone else. But, it’s not necessarily a bad moment when McSweeney’s elevates a socks-and-sandals community to cool. Finally, at least, the pocket-protected writers and readers are on the same subscription list.
For a publishing company comprised of some of today’s great literary minds, it is refreshing to have an open-book that addresses the gated publishing world. Despite its coffee table presence, The Art… is not something to flick through. It reads, front-to-back like the best stories in any Quarterly Concern, enveloping you in language, story and construction; inviting you, for 265 pages plus poster, to be a part of the community.
[i] Reading Reptile, after all, was a children’s bookshop where I imagined that the books were made for me — that between Paul Mesner puppet shows and afternoon snacks, the shop would magically transform into my personal library.
[ii] I was in high school, and because Candide was a reading requirement, I chose the copy with the prettiest cover — a Chris Ware cover, commissioned by Penguin art director Paul Buckley.* At the time, I was also reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and wondering how I could conjure Eggers to help write my college application essays. The stars had aligned with the self-imposed fate of a nerdy, 17-year-old overachiever by the time I came across Number 13 in a bookshop.
[iii] Little did I know, but three years later, sweating inside a plane that was grounded for three hours, I would meet a person who worked for McSweeney’s, whom I would date and fall hopelessly in amorous infatuation with, only to have my heart shredded several weeks later. McSweeney’s would be happy to know that sparks didn’t fly because of a mutual adoration for the organization; fireworks cracked in true, hipster form — by way of music, porkpie hats, and rolled Nantucket-red trousers.
[iv] Within the book, however, there are countless references to experimental, sky’s-the-limit projects that define McSweeney’s: From the first color cover (“We had no clue how to manufacture something like this.”); to the lauded Number 13, edited by Chris Ware (I knew that the book would reach mailboxes of a thoughtful, literate readership and so it was my chance to stealthily make a good case for thoughtful, literate comics.”); to the design of Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends (“I came up with about 283 lame-ass design ideas. I showed them to Dave…He ripped a piece of paper out of a notebook…and took out his pen…I didn’t really understand it to be honest. But you would be crazy not to trust Dave’s design sense.”), The Art… maintains a clear voice because of the sheer amount and diversity of voices that comprise its community. The heavy-hitters are all present, and so are the interns…and the printers in Iceland.
* In my junior year of college, I e-mailed Paul Buckley to ask him about the Penguin graphic novelist series, and he wrote beautifully in his e-mail back to me about community: “I undertook the graphic novelist series with designer Helen Yentus. My publisher and editors knew which books they wanted to do and we'd just sit on the floor of my office surrounded by massive amounts of comics and pair-up great literature with great writers. It was a hell of a lot of fun.”
“If you are on the stove working out a recipe and its not quite right, you know. Your sense of taste, your sense of smell tells you so. In design, your eyes, your gut tells you the same thing. Like anything its about balance and harmony, and if you lack that you'll never be a good chef or a good designer. I also know its done because my editor stops torturing me, and the author says "fine, if it must look like this, I give up - but please know I'm not thrilled".
Saturday, November 6, 2010
It is 4:30 in the afternoon, and dusk struck nearly an hour ago. Balancing a hot Styrofoam cup full of strong, black coffee in one hand, I walk slowly down Peckham Road, meandering with its curves until it’s time to turn down a silent street. The park to my left is too much of a temptation not to step into. I hop over the low metal fence and into a thick soup of leaves saturated with the hues of November. Last night’s constant rain has left them glimmering in this evening’s cold, rose-colored haze, but the water hasn’t logged their leathery bodies too much — their wrinkly, veiny skins envelope my tan lace-ups.
One hundred feet ahead, boys in t-shirts run up and down a soccer field, sweating and laughing with hot-red cheeks despite the chilled air that makes my fingertips tingle. I sip my coffee. For a few minutes I watch them play against a horizon of council houses and fast-moving clouds. One boy in a cherry-red tracksuit stands on the sidelines, kicking up his legs, clambering for the attention of his mates who ignore him. The faint sound of bells drifts from the left. An old woman walks slowly, wrapped in mauve, silk scarves and orthopedic shoes. She's accompanied by two, hobbling dogs. The three slowly wobble through the skeletal trees and back down to the road. It is time to finish my walk home when the Styrofoam coffee cup no longer warms my hands. By the time this is written 20 minutes later, a blanket of navy will overtake the light. I will make dinner in a dark flat, enjoying the novelty of days so short you hesitate to blink, and wondering when I won’t be fascinated by the leaves under my feet.