I'll admit it—we spend so much of our limited space in the Mercury reviewing the best (and sometimes the less-than-the-best) new fiction and literary nonfiction that we frequently forget to give our eyes a treat and indulge in some top-notch picture books. So as soon as you plow though the last of Against the Day's 1,120 pages, slow down and dive into any of these fantastic new art books. Your eyes will thank you for it, and besides—these gorgeous volumes always look extra snazzy on the coffee table.
An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar by Taryn Simon (Steidl) Simon's first book, The Innocents, was an auspiciously formidable debut in which the photographer made portraits of wrongly imprisoned "criminals" at the locations of the crime scenes for which they were jailed. Psychologically and aesthetically riveting, The Innocents was a tough act to follow, but Simon cements her standing as a serious force to contend with in her American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Simon somehow gained entry into dozens of locations where the public is never supposed to go, and photographed things that people like you and I are never supposed to see. From CIA offices to the contraband room at Kennedy Airport to the space where Return of the Jedi's Death Star is kept at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, Simon somehow inserts herself into hidden places and returns with fascinating evidence, both photographic and written. If photography is voyeuristic at its core, this young artist is one of our best practitioners.
Atlas by Gerhard Richter (D.A.P.) Books have been filled in scholarly exploration of Gerhard Richter's mesmerizing dance between painting and photography, but little can compare to Atlas, the 800-plus page, encyclopedic reproduction of Richter's source materials. Containing over 5,000 photos, sketches, and drawings that Richter has relied on for decades of art making, Atlas went out of print a decade ago, and has now been reissued in this compact, essential volume.
Cartoon Workshop Pig Tales Digest by Paper Rad (Picture Box) I, for one, am a full-on Paper Rad junkie. The collective's hypnagogic, kaleidoscopic celebration of 8-bit and troll doll culture rank among the most thrilling art world phenomena that I've seen this century. So why, oh why, does this little pocket-sized paperback fall so short of the Paper Rad brilliance we've come to expect from DVDs like Trash Talking? It's composed mainly of two non-linear, non-funny comics, and even though it's punctuated with a few grin-inducing drawings (digital and otherwise) of classic PR subjects like the California Raisins and hyperchromatic mountains of psychedelic pig snouts, this is the first time I ever felt like Paper Rad really let me down. The PR experience can be approximated in print, but it's going to take a lot more work than this.
Blackstock's Collection: The Drawings of an Artistic Savant by Gregory L. Blackstock (Princeton Architectural Press) Princeton Architectural Press knocked one out of the park with this stunning collection of drawings by Seattle outsider artist Gregory Blackstock. Blackstock is a functioning savant who makes incredibly detailed, catalog-like drawings from memory. Typical subjects include "The Great Cabbage Family" and "The North American State Birds," which are then rendered with an economical precision and accuracy directly from the artist's head. The drawings have an old-timey look to them, like vintage seed packet illustrations or hardware store diagrams, and they're gathered here with incredible care and attention to design and detail. This is one of the nicest books of the year.
The Meat Wagon by Robert Gober (The Menil Foundation) The Meat Wagon is unique among these books in that it's an exhibition catalog from an unconventional Robert Gober show at the celebrated Houston museum, the Menil Collection. In the '05-'06 show of the same name, the brilliant sculptor was invited to raid the mostly hidden archives of the Menil, and to intermingle the found treasures with his own artwork. There's a ton of thematic overlap between the museum's holdings and Gober's interests: Catholic imagery, the human body, the socially downtrodden, and the magic of the commonplace. With an uncommonly sensitive and focused curatorial eye, Gober pairs his own breathtaking sculptures with Delacroix figure studies, 19th century abolitionist pot holders, Nubian funerary masks, and Muhammad Ali wristwatches. While the book can't hope to compare with the power of Gober's original installation, it provides a fascinating peek into the mind of one of our best artists, and another peek into the deep storage of one of our best museums.