Staff Picks: Enigma, Exile, Elongation


This Week’s Reading

Raymond Pettibon.

I roamed around the New Museum last weekend in awe of the eight hundred or so works on display as part of Raymond Pettibon’s retrospective, “A Pen of All Work,” a name lifted from Byron’s poem “The Vision of Judgment.” The exhibition is stellar: vibrant colors drench the walls; morsels of enigmatic, sometimes illegible prose are, in typical Pettibon fashion, tucked into nearly every work. The show comprises everything from the artist’s self-published zines of the seventies (with titles like Short Teats, Bloody Milk and Tripping Corpse 5) to his iconic drawings of political nimrods (Trump makes an appearance). Pettibon’s work, with its accentuated comic-book style and literary prowess, is a thing of grandeur; walking through, I felt I was being pummeled by it over and over. As Pettibon has said of his drawings, “Even to look at them can be an ordeal, like reading Milton at a sitting.” (NB: for a peek at his work, take a look at our Summer 2014 issue: his dog, Boo, graces the cover, and a portfolio of his work is featured inside.) —Caitlin Youngquist

Jaume Plensa is perhaps best known for his monumental public installations: you may remember the fifty-foot-tall LED screens of his Crown Fountain, which once stood in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Familiar with Plensa’s scale, I was intrigued by “Silence, his exhibition at Galerie Lelong. Featuring roughly seven busts in one room, Plensa perches his sculptures along beams of the same salvaged wood from which they were made. The heads—all women—are unevenly burned black, brown, and ochre. Their eyes are closed, their faces slack. Wooden rings pattern their elongated faces. Like the morbid beauty of L’Inconnue de la Seine, they emanate a sense of timelessness; but they’re modeled on individual women from all over the world, and so they buzz with political relevance. I perceived “Silence” as a diasporic space invested in the gaps and overlaps of history—and allowing for reflective respite from the competing rhetoric surrounding immigration and feminism. —Madeline Medeiros Pereira 

Jaume Plensa.

There’s something fundamentally unsettling about Carlos Fonseca’s debut novel, Colonel Lágrimas, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. It’s not the story itself: a brilliant mathematician abandons his career, absconds to a cabin in the mountains, and spends his dying days at work on his “final project,” a demented genealogy of the “caffeinated century” that endured the Spanish Civil War and the Vietnam conflict. Maybe it’s the intriguing silence of the Colonel’s self-exile in the French Pyrenees; the whiteness of the mornings outside his windows; or the over-the-shoulder, ghostly omniscience of the narrator, who steals glances at the Colonel’s project. (Doodles and diary entries, mostly, stuffed away in his desk.) I have an inkling the Colonel might not really be crazy at all—if he is, it’s only because of his lunacy that he’s stumbled onto something monumental. Fonseca’s description of the Colonel’s frantically cobbled archive says it best: “If we went further and dared to open all the drawers, we would find what seems to be a universal history of the false sciences: alchemy and physiognomy, mesmerism and humorism, magic and astrology … a protohistory of science unfolding, a subterranean history of forgotten principles … that we can only attribute to a purposeful madness.” —Daniel Johnson

The five episodes of Andrew DeYoung’s series 555, starring John Early and Kate Berlant, are fantastical (and fantastically cruel) vignettes about struggling creative types in LA. If you think that’s a tired premise, watch “Acting,” in which two horny, passive-aggressive aspirants attend a workshop to philosophize about characterization and motivation. Berlant and Early have painfully evocative faces, capable of registering thousands of varieties of actorly self-satisfaction. They’re sensitive but vicious students of the dark side of SAG membership—and the brand of self-absorption that animates what DeYoung calls the “Hollywood hellscape.” —Dan Piepenbring

Still from 555.

Thoreau wrote in his journals that “the savage in man is never quite eradicated”; we’re still animals, irrational and sometimes violent. Steven Church takes a long look at that violence in his book One with the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals, which proceeds from his fascination with news stories about people jumping into cages with apex predators. (It happens shockingly often.) Through the lens of Heidegger’s theory of the ecstatic experience, Church mixes memoir, reportage, and criticism to grapple with the pervasion of violence in our culture; his writing is surprisingly tender, rejecting barbarity but admittedly unable to look away from it. Threaten him or his daughter, though, and he knows exactly what kind of savagery he’s capable of: “I want for all charismatic barbarians, for all the manimals of the world to humanize the choice to leap, to face the savage and the wild inside,” he writes. Reading One with the Tiger is like watching Mike Tyson bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear or like looking at pictures of the victims of chimpanzee attacks: horrifying and startlingly true.  —Jeffery Gleaves

I didn’t watch the Australian Open, but after reading Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s eloquent recounting of the tournament on the Daily, I wish I had. Phillips’s latest collection of poems, Heaven, is much the same, with rhythmically textured lines, humor, a sense of a metaphysical and spiritual history, and a keen eye for object detail. In a poem called “The God and the Goat,” he writes, “Nacre-gnarled écorchés of ought / And nought air; all caught in the thought / That we were just the God and the goat, / Once strangers, now just strange.” The internal rhyme is propulsive and funny, and I like the notion of deities and goats being analogously odd. Phillips’s metaphors can be subtle and sensuous: in “To an Old Friend in Paris,” he writes, “that chill / As you write that withers into something / Lithe, words for the weather suddenly flush / With lavender and salt.” In the same way that Federer’s calm belies the artistry and skill of his game, Heaven is composed at first blush, but it quivers with important and energetic writing. —Noah Dow