The wall text for Julião Sarmento’s exhibit (closing January 22, 2012)  at the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art promises an exhibit built on “the concept of the book as an aesthetic and visceral object.”  It goes on to report that many of Sarmento’s drawings exemplify the “sensuous gesture of holding a book.”

Like a carnival barker’s hyperbolic and unintentionally ironic script, that text hypes up a show that’s not in any way visceral or sensuous.  “Aesthetic”  for sure:  this survey of the artist’s favorite streamlined book-covers with accompanying drawings of hands holding open books (as well as a cute actress posing with books positioned next to ruggedly twee architectural drawings of the artist’s home and some of the spaces that showcase his art) comes across like an Apple Store in its fetishized simplicity and solipsism.  This joint is sealed tight with Sarmento’s love of books, but that love doesn’t seem at all warm-blooded or real.  The whole effort has the blanched and controlled specificity of a PhD thesis, without the PhD candidate feeling the need to defend anything.

The covers of Sarmento’s favorite books have been exaggerated to carnival-poster size, and pasted to the gallery’s walls.  Sarmento has transformed the covers, though, beyond just increasing their size.  He has taken away the graphics, as well as the publication information, leaving only color and font.  Here’s that wall text again:  “This focuses our attention on the content, the development of thought, concepts and stories in books.”

I guess so.

But just because the covers have gone through a baptism of fire and an enlargement so they can be revered as museum-worthy doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an increase in meaning.  This is a fascinating reading list writ large, a way for the artist to let us know which books have influenced him and changed him, but that influence and change only remain skin-deep.

You might be able to make an argument that through the process of erasing the marketing aspects of book covers Sarmento is allowing us a way out of Capitalism’s imperious clutches into a more purified mode of reception and expression.  Or you could read the whole set-up as a nostalgic paean to The Book as Beautiful Object being eaten alive by I-Pads, Kindles and Nooks.  Those two approaches, however, didn’t gel for me while perusing the show.

Actual book covers, with their over-the-top blurbs, Oprah Book Club decals, and “New York Times Best Selling List” credentials, tempt us into reading the books themselves exactly because of the pedigree and “worthiness” of all that P.R. jazz.  Stripped of that buzz, the books Sarmento loves still have the echo and radiation left by what has been taken away, no matter how much of it Sarmento erases.  In other words, books become canonized in the way Sarmento is canonizing them exactly because of word-of-mouth and publication, not because of fonts and colors.

A fashion-show hush emanates from what Sarmento has compiled here, a sense that style transcends subject matter.  The old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” gets morphed into, “Judge a book by luxuriating in its cover.”  This focus on the evening gowns and tuxedoes books wear reveals more about taste and commodification than Sarmento and the curators maybe realize.  Sarmento’s favorite tomes include ones authored by Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Jay McInerney, and TS Eliot – a veritable Mount Rushmore of White Male Geniuses.  If what I just wrote sounds kind of like big-time literary name-dropping , that seems to be one of the show’s main purposes as well:  a postmodernist scrapbook of high-end bookishness, a deification of knowledges and philosophies codified and sold by universities and publishing houses.

Here’s Sarmento’s biography blurb from the CAC’s web-site:   “Sarmento was born in 1948 in Lisbon and studied painting and architecture at the University of Fine Arts in Lisbon. Today he lives and works in Estoril, Portugal. His exhibition history is extensive. He has represented Portugal at the Venice Biennale and his works are included in the collection of the MoMA and Guggenheim in New York, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.”

In keeping with Sarmento’s exhibit’s logic and intentions, that biography begs the question:  If we were to erase all the information concerning Sarmento, and just present Sarmento’s work as a poster with only meticulous fonts and colors, would I even be writing about Sarmento and his love of books?  Epistemology often thrives on hoopla, publicity and tricks, and out of that mess sometimes come bits of “truth” and “meaning.”  But truth and meaning are a lot more visceral and sensuous than Sarmento’s book-cover trope allows.  At the end of the day, this exhibit feels like a trip to an exalted Barnes and Nobles with expert displays advertising famous books.

The meaning of it all somehow gets lost in translation.

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