Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Year in Review, pt. 1: Preamble

For lovers of speculative and fabulistic art, 2009 was a very good year. Lobster the librarian and canary the connoisseur offer here their favorites, making no claims other than to defend their own categories and taste.

As historians are wont to do, we stretch time just a little, reaching back into 2008 (and on a few occasions into ’06 and ’07). Call it “The Long 2009,” along the lines of “The Long Sixteenth Century” and “The Long Eighteenth Century.”

We’ve already this year interviewed, reviewed or otherwise noted work by Cat Valente, Laird Hunt, Cindy Pon, Lisa Kaser, Marie Brennan, Kate MacDowell, Les Bartlett, Tim Green, Zina Brown, Delia Sherman, Sharon Dolin, Antonio Preciado, Angela McAllister & Grahame Baker Smith, Shona Reppe, Ken Scholes, Nathaniel Mackey, various artists at the McKenzie Gallery (NYC). Greer Gilman, Matthew Cheney, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, Erzebet YellowBoy... seek out their work, experience it, buy it, tell others...

In the coming week, we’ll post on many others who have spurred our heart this year. We may be in the midst of a Silver Age for fantasy. We contemplate a Wunderhorn of art that is well-conceived and well-executed. Art that opens the way to the unknowing from which we learn the most important lessons. The lobster and canary want art that we don’t fully get, that makes time slow down as we delve ever more deeply for meaning just outside our grasp... Kara Walker’s After the Deluge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006 or Robert Rauschenberg’s drawings for Dante’s Inferno (the entire series shown by the Museum of Modern Art last year to mark Rauschenberg’s death)...

....the visceral horror of Margo Lanagan’s “The Goosle”, the bizarre matter-of-factness of Vandana Singh’s “The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet,” the raw beauty of Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn, the layered politics of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia, the savagery of the world created by Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games...

...the filigreed images in Sarah Lindsay’s Twigs & Knucklebones.... words and the river becoming one in Alice Oswald’s Dart (2002, reprinted 2007)... the MoMA retrospective, James Ensor's skeletons squabbling over herring and warming themselves at a wood-burning stove...

...a head crest made by the Ejagham people of Nigeria, on special display at the Metropolitan...Ranbir Kaleka’s Reading Man installation at the Bose Pacia Gallery (NYC)...

The established, large museums and publishers continue—despite serious challenges to their business models—to house much of the work Lobster & Canary likes best. But the big story of the past few years is the emergence of the independents, especially on the print side.

Robust, here to stay, devoutly innovative and interdisciplinary, increasingly transcultural: Chizine Publications (CZP), Senses Five, Small Beer, Tachyon, Aqueduct, Pyr, Graywolf,Norilana, Wattle & Daub, Copper Canyon, Tir Na Nog (thanks for saving Realms of Fantasy), Subterranean, Sarabande, Nightshade, Prime, Omnidawn, Mythic Delirium, Orca, Candlewick, Overlook, Hotel St. George, Red Hen, Coffee House. Keep an eye on Thiele, Cleon, kunstanst!fter, and Loewe in Germany, Bragelonne in France, Per Kofod in Denmark, Picnic Books, Dedalus, Salt and Alma in the U.K., De Geus and Nieuw Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I suspect similar good things are happening in other countries, and would love to hear about those.

A trait broadly shared by all of the above is a deep devotion to superb design and construction. Similar attention to the aesthetics of reading is prominent in newer periodicals too: Sienese Shredder, Cabinet des Fees, Shimmer, Conduit, Kaleidotrope, Electric Velocipede, Jubilat, Goblin Fruit, Rattle, Epiphany, Neon, Ideomancer, Sybil’s Garage, Cabinet, Mannequin Envy, Fairy Tale Review, Subtropics, Perigee. Let’s call this “the new artisanal turn,” evident in certain areas of the visual arts as well. (Include Weird Tales in the list here--it is hardly a newcomer but it feels new in its current incarnation.) Lobster & Canary will talk more about this in 2010.

Another shared characteristic: blurring or denying traditional genre expectations, working across and against the grain, pitching ephemeral tents of welcome in arroyos that belong to no one but everyone. The newly founded Interstitial Arts Foundation is a prime example, and prime mover, of the trend. The IAF’s two Interfictions anthologies to date are exciting exemplars of cross-fertilization, as are their salons—where musicians and visual artists mix with writers. Also founded recently in NYC is The Observatory, another group determined to unite word, image and music.

No isolated instances either: JoSelle Vanderhooft’s Ossuary is a tribute to Erzebet YellowBoy’s bone-anchored art pieces (2007), Cole Swensen and Thomas Nozkowski collaborated on Flare at Yale, Green Cardamom in London and White Box in NYC experiment with boundaries, Trinie Dalton dazzles with her phantasmagorical compilation Mythtym, Mary Robinette Kowal’s professional puppetry skills influence her writing, some thirty poets and visual artists have collaborated on Somewhere Far From Habit, on tour now...other examples abound.

The trend looks set to continue with leading U.S. art schools such as RISD, Parsons, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, SCAD, Otis, and the San Francisco Art Institute promoting interdisciplinary programs. Best of all, the art schools themselves are returning to artisanal basics, re-emphasizing drawing and other traditional studio skills.

(All that's old is new again: ekphrasis is an ancient genre, and the dream of a Gesamtkunstwerk is venerable.)

So: tomorrow we’ll start our review of 2009 with a look in more detail at the artisanal turn.

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