Alternative Coffee Table Books
April 26, 2000
Strange Ritualby David ByrneChronicle Books; (no page numbers) 24.95 Reviewed by Glen Helfand "I worship meaningless images," David Byrne writes in his book of color photographs. ItÕs a descriptive admission. Strange Ritual is a quasi-ethnographic travelogue told in pictures of ordinary shop windows, touristed religious sites, and museum vitrines. In his typical Mr. Rogers-as-art-school-eccentric manner, the ex-Talking Head serves up images of everything from store window displays to international bathroom graffiti and upturned easy chairs. The bookÕs full-page pictures add up to a vague, global village exploration of faith (it even has a Bible-like, embossed cover design) and the distorting effects of media representation. "Will our consciousness be a complete pastiche?" he queries. In this quietly glossy volume, it sure looks that way. National Museum of American ArtSmithsonian Institution;Bullfinch Press/Little Brown;280 pages; $40Reviewed by Glen Helfand In a literary arena usually filled with the stuffy language of connoisseurship, the Smithsonian has opted for a more populist approach in this broad survey of its American art collection. This well-intended volume offers art history lessons like the selections in a hearty salad bar. The artwork is organized by style and subject, capturing a diverse range of aesthetic issues and cultural identities. Regional, traditional, outsider, early-American, and contemporary, political artists -- even pueblo modernists -- receive their own sections, generously laden with accessible quotes from them and their critics. Unfortunately, the bookÕs heavy-handed, American-style design rarely allows the numerous color reproductions to shine. Cremaster 4by Matthew BarneyD.A.P.; 100 pages; $40Reviewed by Glen Helfand Matthew BarneyÕs artwork is a stylish, twisted world of viscera, race cars, and polymorphous gender states. This coffee-table version of his most recent video and sculptural works, all titled Cremaster 4, captures all his freaky, boyish perversity. ItÕs a bizarre visual narrative featuring mutant, fiberglass hot rods (one of which boasts a flesh-colored tire with testicles), strange orifices, muscular nude hermaphrodites, tap dancing, entrail-like caverns, and major slime. Combining crisp photos with murkier video stills, the book easily captures the aerial and underwater sweep of the videotape that was filmed on the Isle of Man. While the publication feels a little like a deluxe souvenir program, itÕs a fitting companion to this unforgettable, big-budget artwork. The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-PortraitAbrams; 296 pages; $39.95Reviewed by Glen Helfand While hardly an Anne Frank type, megamythical artist Frida Kahlo has nudged into the pantheon of posthumous diary publication. KahloÕs icon status was understandably generated from her powerful paintings and a biography of pain and relationships with powerful men and women. The lavishly produced facsimile of her diary, however, doesnÕt exactly stand on its own. Full of vibrantly colored, expressionistic drawings and watercolors along with poetic stream of consciousness texts and letters (all translated and commented upon in an appendix), the book is best suited to psychobiographers, art historians, and Frida-maniacs well versed in Kahlo. The book includes some striking artwork, juicy autobiographical tidbits, and an engagingly anecdotal introduction by Carlos Fuentes, and as you read this once-personal effect, you canÕt help feeling youÕve entered into a tastefully wrapped invasion of privacy. Tina Modotti: Photographsby Sarah M. Lowe; Abrams; 160 pages; $45 Reviewed by Reena JanaThis comprehensive compilation of work by the Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti is as subtle in its drama and elegance as the artistÕs signature duotone images themselves. Accompanying the eponymous retrospective, currently touring the nation, as an exhibition catalogue, Sarah M. LoweÕs presentation of the life and artistic career of "the best-known unknown photographer of the twentieth century" is both detailed and engaging. LoweÕs text provides the deeper context with which we can observe, absorb, and fully understand the calculated simplicity of ModottiÕs photographs, ranging in subject, from politically-iconic still lifes to portraits of street laborers, mothers and babies, flowers, architectural studies, and beautiful people alike.