It Is Almost That: In gray there is multiplicity

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January 10th, 2013


(Review) It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers


In Gray There Is Multiplicity


Originally published September 28, 2011


In gray there is multiplicity. It’s the last line of this book. Lisa Pearson, who edited It Is Almost That, tells us a million things before we get to this stunning line. And when I read it (and underlined it with my Sharpie), I thought, “That’s the beginning of the book” (which it was for me, because I turned it around and began reading it differently).

What I liked so much about this ending (and the explanation that immediately preceded it) is that I was tactically allowed, as a reader, to have my own experience of this book, and was told here rather than up-front exactly what went into the assembling of this creation — which is a collection of 26 image+text pieces by a slightly larger number of female artists. Some of the pieces here are collaborations, and one is in fact by a group. It’s a lot of territory, and in Lisa Pearson we’ve got an adept and unobtrusive tour guide.

And guide us, she did do.

She told us how she decided which pieces not to include, and how she made exceptions. Her considerations included thoughts about color (the requirement for included pieces is for each of them to work in black-and-white — or grayscale, ideally) and the relative fame or obscurity of the artist — and their individual piece mattered, too. The elegantly jumbled end result is the reward for this quirky decision process. As readers, we’re both massaged and piqued by what we do and don’t sometimes already know, and often we are glad to see a piece in a fresh context (Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, for example). But the collection also delivers a wallop through its surprises.

There’s an odd early piece by Louise Bourgeois. As drawing and text and meditation, it’s a compelling inclusion, but the real payoff for me was experiencing Louise Bourgeois as a girl. I don’t mean the word diminutively. I mean she was young once, and we are so used to the career of Louise Bourgeois being a grand old one. We also learn (maybe everyone knows this) that at the age of 71 her career went “international,” which is inspiring. There’s such an abundance of small turns, informed views, and ledges on this reading trip. Its organization makes the point that a book that gathers female art doesn’t need to be explained away as feminist. It’s something else. Just tell us about female lives and female art careers all in one place, and it’s more like we’re having tea with Pema Chödrön. The inspiration (and the desolation) of the female artist is vibrantly there. Because the frame is image+text, we’re reminded that all of us generally do more. Female artists don’t just stay in their disciplines; we experience, we forage, we play.

Intuitively and practically speaking, It Is Almost That is, in effect, a handbook. It, by presenting female art history, shows us how to be an artist. Each career here, whether its arc is short or long, presents a new kind of way. Because the format is strong and uniform. Title, artist, date, and artist statement. Bios at the back of the book. When the work presented didn’t hold my attention, the tiny quote from the artist at the front sometimes did. And since almost a quarter of the artists included are deceased, they weren’t filling in their bio and statement form. The information was culled from journals and public statements and letters. And I think the reason the book has a consciousness-raising effect is because it’s not intentional. It’s adamantly an aesthetic selection, with relationships between the contributions being prime rather anyone being positioned as this or that. Finally, we are reminded that “images are not illustrative and language does not explain.” It’s gray and it’s vague. For readers and wanderers. So hooray. Let’s go. . . .

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