Thursday, 1 May 2008


Press & Release is a “celebration of artists’ books and independent publishing”, showing at Brighton’s Phoenix Gallery until June 7th. (Yes, Lucid Frenzy is finally covering an exhibition that’s still on!) Last Saturday I attended the Gallery Talk given by the show’s star turns – Jan Dirk de Wilde and Joyce Guley from deranged Dutch book-inventors Knust and Caroline Sury and Pakito Bolino from French art-brut imprint Le Dernier Cri.

Hearing them describe their work side-by-side, the differences between the two outfits became immediate. Knust (an anagrammatic mangling of the Dutch word for art) have been based in a cooperatively-run artists’ building in Nijmegen since the Eighties, producing limited edition books on supposedly redundant stencil machines and book binders. His flat tones only barely masking his dry wit, de Wilde gave a nuts-and-bolts account of his years grappling with archaic technology, sometimes vanishing to rustle up examples. At one point it became impossible to buy more ink for the machines, so they simply set about making their own! De Wilde proudly told us how this never quite dried, and was “leaving dirty finger marks after twenty years even.” (Interestingly, he went on to add stencil machines were now making a comeback – albeit disguised as photocopiers. One manufacturer had insisted to him their product wasn’t a stencil maker, until he’d explained that was the reason he wanted to buy it!)

Knust’s output echoes this. Though it often features nice, loose cartooning (similar to Gary Northfield) it’s the formal aspects of their packaging which imprints itself upon you– triangular books, cross-shaped books, books with hidden compartments and more. The exhibition was plastered with some of their patented foldable wallpaper, which allows itself to be folded back against the wall in different directions - but every option coming up with a finished picture. (A little like the Surrealist Exquisite Corpse game.) As they put it on their website, “Knust's only convention is the permanent re-inventing of the book.”

Le Dernier Cri, conversely, were very much iconoclasts. As they spoke from their gallery room, decked floor-to-ceiling in giant-size screenprints with books and comics dangling from Hellraiser chains, they described an animation in which an asylum resident papers his cell with his deranged drawings… it was suddenly like the room was the inside of their own heads! The work presented was from a wide range of artists from all over the world, working in many styles and forms, and yet it all felt stylistically unified somehow.

The content of their work is often extreme, with a section here reserved for over-18s and one show in Germany apparently closed down by the Police. (You will, I warn you, need a strong stomach.) However what’s memorable isn’t merely it’s ‘transgressive’ nature so much as the way those contents fused with the form – some of those screenprinted colours fairly shrieked at you. Small wonder their motif is a vomiting eyeball! As much as underground comics and outsider art current, Dernier Cri emerged from the Eighties Paris punk scene. Just like punk records never sounded like they could possibly have been made in the same studios as ELO albums, even as objects Dernier Cri’s books seem to have come from another world than DC comics.

If they were making music Dernier Cri would be a wild live act and Knust a tinkering studio outfit. Nevertheless whatever their differences they had more in common, making them a perfect pairing for an exhibition like this. With digital printing the financial incentive to use screenprints and stencils for low runs is slowly disappearing. However that merely lays bare their aesthetic appeal … they occupy a shifting midpoint, neither original art object nor (quite) mass-produced item. De Wilde spoke with relish about how the dirty inks of screenprinting worked best with rough paper, how there could never quite be uniformity of output and showed us ‘misprints’ like favoured children. It’s this very roughness which gives the work a warmth and sense of character, especially when set on a shelf of bland uniformity. My last two comics have had (respectively) a digitally produced and screenprinted cover. One has perfectly even colouring presented perfectly on glossy paper. The other is the one everyone looks at first on stalls…

A cynic about Brighton galleries, I didn’t expect to like anything else in the exhibition. While admittedly contents are mixed, it undoubtedly features some cool stuff. For example there’s the unbelievably intricate die-cut books of Kaho Kojima and Chisato Tamabayashi, the codices of Mayan women’s collective Taller Lenateros plus (perhaps inevitably) more by Mark Pawson of Disinfotainment.

But it’s perhaps Ben Thomson’s gallery design which makes this show feel such a special event. At every stage, the staid gallery response to presenting books is bypassed with wit and panache. A personal favourite was the cabinets containing sketchbooks, with gloved hand-holes to turn the pages like the books were under quarantine! Bookworm Alasdair Willis also turned in a fine poster, in a style reminiscent of small press artist Cool Cheese.

You can watch an attendance-whetting video of the opening night here.

I’ll be with my two types of comic at the Artists’ Book Fair on Sat 24th May

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