Where It's At: recent art and music books

Time and Anthony Braxton, Stuart Broomer (176pp, $19.95, The Mercury Press)
At..., Peter Campbell (399pp, £20, Hyphen Press)
John McLean, Ian Collins (176pp, £35, Lund Humphries)
A Crisis of Brilliance, David Boyd Haycock (386pp, £20, Old Street Publishing)
Glitch: Designing Imperfection, Iman Morandi, Ant Scott, Joe Gilmore, Christopher Murray (132pp, $32.95, Mark Batty Publisher)
Krautrock. Cosmic Rock and its Legacy (192pp, £19.95, Black Dog Publishing)

I find it difficult to know what 'new and original way' (as Ronald Blythe's back cover quote puts it) David Boyd Hancock handles the material in his book about 'Five Young British Artists and the Great War'. It's certainly very readable and engaging, but it's biographical stance had me running for my art shelves to find some reproductions and critique of the actual art that Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson and Dora Carrington produced.

Although I wouldn't claim to have previously known all the information in Hancock's book, I certainly found little new in it about Spencer or Nash; indeed, I actually felt there was information missing that the likes of Maurice Collis have previously made available. There's obviously a whole debate to be had about the use of biography in relation to the visual arts, but for me the complex social webs unfolded by Hancock don't help illuminate the artists' work - which is what I'm interested in - at all. Those who prefer social history and biography will enjoy this book far more than me, and I appreciate I may be doing it a disservice by assuming it was about painting.

Much more focussed and enjoyable is Ian Collins' monograph on John McLean, which features a vast amount of superb full colour reproductions of McLean's work. However, Collins allows McLean to disingenuously claim that his 'pictures have no hidden meaning', which seems to give permission for a certain critical lightness throughout the volume: only a few critical quotes are to be found among the biographical information, along with some plaudits by McLean's fellow artists, and one brief interview.

That said, this book clearly charts McLean's artistic trajectory and also his consistency with regard to colour, form and simplicity. There is an apparently breathtaking impetuousness to much of the work, a playfulness and lightness of touch, that clearly belies the skill and thoughtfulness of the artist. McLean's jocularity and wit are omnipresent throughout. Lund Humphries are to be congratulated on their ever-growing library of beautifully designed art books on unexpected and intriguing subjects.

Peter Campbell's takes his art at a genteel and conversational pace. At... contains a selection of his writing over a ten year period for the London Review of Books, and is beautifully produced if rather expensive. (You can tell Hyphen Press, who are new to me, are interesting as the catalogue and publicity material that arrived with the book are beautifully designed and wonderfully tactile.) I rather enjoyed this volume, as Campbell neither feels the need to bow to current fashion or to engage with trendy critical stances; he prefers to describe what he sees and discuss it, usually in a fairly brief manner (that presumably the magazine column format demands).

The reviews are carefully grouped and this juxtaposition gives a sense of Campbell's wider take on things, which is also apparent from sections which discuss architecture, escalators, London and doors. This is careful and considered writing, with its focus rightly on the work itself rather than those who make such work. This is a book I shall return to again and again; it is a pleasure to both read and hold.

If some titles seem, to me, to be rooted in a mistaken focus, Glitch celebrates digital mistakes and the use graphic designers have made of them. Here are video and web screengrabs, treated visual feedback, electronic 'mistakes' and incorrectly decoded files all put to good use by a new breed of applied visual artists.

I'm more used to the idea of glitch in relation to soundscapes and electronic music, but it seems that the theory is pretty much the same, to destabilise the supposedly 'unchanging' and 'pure' reproductive tendencies of the digital and make something new with what results. In some concise and informative interviews, five practitioners talk intelligently about the practical and theoretical ideas behind their work, whilst the rest of the book is given over to a wide range of visual examples, from technicolour abstractions to treated landscapes and figures via blurred black & white minimalism. This is fascinating and intriguing stuff.

Krautrock could perhaps be seen as one starting point of the music that became glitch (Kraftwerk and Faust to Oval anyone?) and despite it's now apparently assured place in musical history it continues to have little of intelligence written about it critically or historically. I'm afraid that Black Dog's new book does little to alleviate this state of affairs. Despite it's all star cast of contributors, and full colour reproductions throughout, it fails to do more than skim the surface of the music, and certainly fails to discuss its legacy to any extent. This is basically a coffee table version of Julian Cope's seminal paperback of some years ago, and is a wasted opportunity to fill a critical hole.

Far more focussed and critically acute is Stuart Broomer's new book on Anthony Braxton. Broomer considers the idea and nature(s) of time in relation to Braxton's extensive oeuvre in a number of fascinating chapters, with consideration of such intriguing matters as 'the invention of the audience', 'the cardigan and the march' and 'the hour-glass on stage'. These, and many other, abstract and tangential ideas, give Broomer new and inventive ways to consider Braxton's music and it's context, from solo works through small groups and larger ensembles to the more recent ghost trance and diamond wall musics.

Both Braxton's music and his musical theories are constantly changing, mutating and redefining themselves; they are a poetics of music rather than a fixed and final definition of it. The author's original and informed approach to his subject suits Braxton's wide-ranging and eclectic output over the years as well as allowing Broomer's diverse knowledge full rein. This is an inspired and inspiring book that has encouraged me to listen to Braxton anew.

     © Rupert Loydell 2010