MGM 2008 - Press & Release Self-Published Art At Phoenix

By Marian Cleary | 02 May 2008
Photo of two people surrounded by comic style illustrations on the wall and on a counter

© Le Dernier Cri

Review – Press & Release at Phoenix Gallery, Brighton, until June 7 2008.

Brighton Phoenix Gallery’s new exhibition, Press and Release, is a wide ranging, almost sprawling examination and celebration of self-publication and artistic encounters with publishing.

Obsessions and fantasies abound with the anarchic contributors revelling in the freedom of taking over the presses.

Books make up the majority of the works on show, but prints are also on display as are explorations of the processes of reproduction and replication in different media.

Shared concerns beyond this are hard to pin down because of the huge amount on show, but a good starting point is to think about the differences between looking at pictures on display compared to looking for them inside the covers of a book.

Paul Clark plays deliberately with this concept. We are assaulted with reproduced images on walls in our environment, confronted daily by billboards and posters. His response to this is to make huge books (and even huger ones are planned) that viewers/readers have to physically manoeuvre in order to take a peek inside. Once there, we are in a dark world of gothic adventure set in sinister caves and bleak landscapes, with cutesy overtones.

This dark side of books and publishing continues to the rear of the gallery. With disclaimers and no entry to under-18s, it comes as no surprise to discover an unrestrained world reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch and the Chapman brothers.

Illustration of an animal skull and the title Book of Deth

© Paul Clarke

This is the heaven and hell of Le Dernier Cri, a Marseille-based print collective representing 80 authors from dozens of countries who, along with Knust from the Netherlands, are kingpins of the show.

Le Dernier Cri’s books are displayed chained to the ceiling in a torture chamber of prints and publications with titles ranging from Popeye (taken literally) to Paradise Lust (draw your own conclusions).

In wandering through their world of sex, violence and blasphemy, I’m struck by the unusual sight of the word Hope on one cover. Opening it up reveals images of tortured soft toys. Not one for the kids – and an object lesson in that thing they say about books and covers.

Heading blithely past more warnings, the mood continues in the next room, where moderation is finally kissed goodbye. Whether the internal-symbolism made illustrated-flesh absorbs or repels is something for each adult visitor to grapple with.

After all this transgression and questioning of innocence, Mark Pawson’s collection of Kinder Eggs appears faintly sinister, though he does not intend this.

The collection, shown from egg to finished Kinder toy along with little books on the subject, is displayed in a cabinet alongside Noggin toys and electric plug labels. In collecting, reproducing and displaying these things, he is asking us to take notice of the endless reproduction itself.

Illustration of a creature with a crystal ball

© Paul Clarke

John Dilnot also uses a cabinet of curiosities, but is working in a natural history tradition of self-publication. This was recently added to by Prince Charles’s foray into self-publishing, the Highgrove Florilegium. The series of 175 copies is full of prints of watercolours of the flora to be found on his estate (it will set you back only £10,950 to get a copy, and needless to say it's not on show here).

Dilnot’s natural history, however, is about how we encounter the environment, not in a watercolour world but with an artistic/comic eye. His '50 Cows' begins with the Laughing Cow of cheese spread fame, and he moves on to educate us on the 'Anatomy of Bad Apples' – don’t be fooled by their sweet names.

Helen Douglas also focuses on natural history in her little books Wildwood and Unravelling the Ripple. In wordless detail they force us into the realisation that we hardly ever notice the stuff of leaves and tides.

Film-maker Jeff Keen takes us to another self-publishing tradition, the comic. Dating from the 1960s, his Amazing Ray Day cartoon strips are full of pasting, staples and courier typeface. They serve as a reminder that creativity and self-publication have always gone hand in hand.

The Mexican collective Taller Leñateros ('Woodlanders' Workshop') tell the history of Mayan people through publication – something lost from their original culture but reinvented here. Ben Thomson’s gallery design allows us to see all sides of the artisan books in this section, with covers visible through the windows to a room within the room. On the inside of the space, the books reveal their stories.

Illustrated poster advertising an artists' book fair

© Alisdair Willis

This is an example of how Ben’s design has enabled many of the exhibits to share space whilst sharing, in many cases, very little else thematically beyond ideas around self-publication. Whilst much of the gallery is open, half is built around a maze of shelving and temporary walls.

Ben explains: “I wanted to create the sense of how you disappear into a book by taking people around corners and into private spaces to encounter the work.”

Chrisato Tamabayashi is one such artist who benefits from these private spaces, in penetrating stories that demand concentration. Fine, detailed paper cutting takes us, for instance, from a satellite view of a park to the cellular structure of trees.

Tamabayashi finds a soul mate in the Knust print workshop artists. Like Le Dernier Cri, they have a strong history of publishing and facilitating publication for artists, but focus chiefly on experimentation with format and assemblage. This results in an eclectic mix of finished products including wallpaper, prints and cards as well as books.

John Say and Sheena Vallely take up this idea with their debris prints on wallpaper and their soundtracks made from the sounds 'thrown away' around us.

An open book with an illustration of a tree and an aerial map like image

© Chrisato Tamabayashi

Whilst much of the emphasis in the exhibition is on examining and experimenting with the idea of publication, the word ‘self’ can also be drawn out as a theme.

Jim Sanders, who shows his personal notebooks in the exhibition, demonstrates the introspection and indulgence that is perhaps at the heart of self-publishing.

He furnishes his exhibits with ephemera and accretions. Like barnacles, beer bottle lids and the detritus from meals frame his books, which have grown fat on his ideas.

Press and Release is an amazingly full and busy exhibition, and on top of all that adds the other element of the publishing trade – a shop, right in the centre of the space, where copies of some works are on sale.

With such a range of offerings however, there is an inequality of weight not so much between the terms of reference of the exhibition as between the items on show. With the tremendous power of Le Dernier Cri and the importance of Taller Lenateros combined with the visitation of Kunst to Brighton, and the inclusion of local heavyweights like Dilnot, the search is on to find gems for oneself. Perhaps this is half the fun.

Like Alasdair Willis proves with his 'My Space Images', we are all curators/artists/exhibitionists now.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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