A Thousand SeveralDecember 8, 2010
I recently had drinks with a friend who’d just relocated from the Bay Area to New York City. We discussed the phenomena of connection and connectivity, anonymity and intimacy, as they relate to living in a massive city like New York, and the comparatively small-town San Francisco. Years ago, when I lived in New York, my daily struggles with this spectrum of fleeting intimacy often struck me with the feeling that we are all alone together. Today, in San Francisco, Emily McVarish’s new body of work at 871 Fine Arts Gallery and Book Store, a subterranean space directly downstairs from Crown Point Press, brings these thoughts rushing back to me. A Thousand Several examines a contradiction in terms, investigating themes of disconnected, anxious, and individualized communities in the format of a book and its eponymous exhibition.
For the last two decades, McVarish has focused on making finely written, designed, die-cut, handset, printed, and bound books. While this was the first exhibition of hers that I’ve seen, A Thousand Several convinced me that her books are her most successful work. Through her medium, McVarish asserts the importance of the book format, and strikingly so in the face of such modern subject matter: information containment, conversation avoidance, and distraction to the highest degree. The exhibition consists of McVarish’s book and prints that hang on the gallery walls. A glass case holds books, and I was permitted to look more closely at A Thousand Several, which is in itself the book form of the exhibition: a compilation of the works on the wall. The contents of the book—unbound and disconnected—create a new code of severance that doesn’t quite translate. This book, much more than the exhibition and works on the wall, captures a real failure of the will to experience the world around us—and McVarish depicts it with great poetics.
There’s something untouchable about A Thousand Several—its pristine white pages, its crisp letter-pressed blocks of color and text, and its high design—that makes it an exquisite pleasure to touch. Conversely, there’s something wholly unattractive about the atmosphere of the gallery and the works’ placements on the walls. Many of them hang behind cluttered and inaccessible desk spaces, laid out at standard height in a mostly uniform and continuous series around the gallery. Perhaps the owners or the artist thought it best not to interrupt these lengths, even though viewers would not feel welcome to look closer.
But the book itself is much more thoughtfully edited and presented than these pieces. Viewing it as a continuum, I started in the middle and worked backwards and forwards. A Thousand Several is full of anonymous strangers, stray words and descriptions, melancholy poetics, and dotted horizontal lines. Metaphorically, this constant stream of dotted and dashed lines reads as so many sidewalks or city blocks. Literally, these dots, dashes, and nearly connected lines on the page appear to be slivers of letters, rendered mute on letterpress, and given a clean, sharp, abstract quality by their lack of sound. The words themselves are objects; pieces of an ever-floating conversation; snatches of quotidian existence edited down and included only as sound bites—strictly impersonal, unfeeling.
The formal purity of McVarish’s “uncollectible crowds,” her project of distilling chaotic city streets into an orderly, quiet, meticulously designed space, works more efficiently as its own contained space, separate from its pairings on the walls. This work seems wary of its own subjects, often rendering them merely outlines—distracted, tuned-out, and all alone, together. It’s as though McVarish herself wishes muteness on the world around her, and achieves it through her books.
A Thousand Several is on view at 871 Fine Arts Gallery and Book Store, in San Francisco, through December 31, 2010.