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Reading The Believer’s 2010 Art Issue

The Believer: The 2010 Art Issue, Issue No. 76, November-December 2010

It’s easy enough to tell that The Believer is a publication from California from looking at the cover of their 2010 Art Issue, much less getting to the table of contents. A 70s psychedelic mashup of art icons, a John Baldessari suited figure, a dinosaur figurine, and a Picassoian acrobat by Clare Rojas march up a ray of red and yellow light into … the mouth of a skin-less human body? New York this is not. Famously co-edited by Vendela Vida, writer spouse of writer wunderkind Dave Eggers, The Believer is well known for its cutesy tone and off-beat vibe, helped along by its graphic design and a coterie of Californian cultural denizens. None of these are bad qualities in themselves, but when editing an “art issue,” it might be best to start looking outside of the narrow perspective of your own aesthetic.

I’d characterize The Believer under the short-lived adjective of “quirk,” a term that came to briefly connote the self consciously-warped, child-like writing of authors like Dave Eggers and Miranda July who used funky grammar, twisted first person, and a focus on … well, quirky, topics as aesthetic flashpoints. This transfers to the magazine’s indirect version of arts coverage: rather than analytical essays or hard discussion or argument, The Believer publishes letters, interviews, and open-ended stories that more often than not trail off into nowhere, telling me little about art and lacking a critical edge.

A story from Avi Davis about a mysterious museum in Guanajuato, Mexico starts off on the right foot, an adventure into the past of a group of clay dinosaur figures claimed by historian and amateur archaeologist Waldemar Julsrud to be the work of an early lost civilization, the mother tribe of the Americas. We discover that the dinosaurs are fakes, baked to fool the gullible Julsrud. Yet there is no deeper questioning of ideas of museology or preservation in the story, simply the funny narrative.

Art historian Harry Berger Jr. writes a letter in response to an Alice Neel exhibition at the helpful bequest of Lawrence Weschler, that chronicler of the West Coast whose biography on Robert Irwin essentially wrote the book on what we consider Californian art. The letter is a fascinating peek into the mind of an art thinker, but it also reads as the quick note it is — insignificant, a memento in a longer path of investigation.

Michael Light's photographs in The Believer

Then things start getting serious. A talk with Carroll Dunham about his drawing process and a remembrance by C.S. Leigh of the career and life of Pictures Generation artist Jack Goldstein are both useful pieces of writing that give way to a larger art historical context. Lawrence Weschler interviews Michael Light, an aptly named photographer who seems like the camera equivalent of California’s Light and Space movement that Weschler has documented. Seeing Light’s sky-high photos in print is fantastic for the gradation and quality of the sunlight spreading its way over the city of LA. Unfortunately, an extensive interview with John Baldessari would have been better off unprinted consider the glut of everything Baldessari we’ve been experiencing lately. Anymore and I may break out with red dots all over my face.

This is historiography of the art world as seen from the West Coast. The issue as a whole is a valuable contribution to the documentation of contemporary art in California, but the limited perspective is a double-edged sword in making the publication feel close minded as well as local. The Believer has a nice, friendly way to talk about art, and the magazine is fun to read and interesting, but unfortunately it’s not very wide-ranging. Does visual arts coverage need to stake wider claims? I don’t think I’m alone in believing that it should.

The Believer Nov/Dec Art Issue 2010 is available from the McSweeney’s store, as well as at fine magazine and literature shops in a Brooklyn near you.

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