Learning to read art, as Lawrence Weiner long ago exhorted, is not a simple process. Where the textual meets the visual, demands outnumber easy pleasures. It Is Almost That is rich in both challenge and satisfaction. This collection of “twenty-six visionary image+text works by women artists and writers,” in the words of its publisher and editor, Lisa Pearson of Siglio Press, is, as she promises, not a traditional anthology. It is not arranged chronologically, nor alphabetically, nor by theme or format. Concluding the book is its earliest entry, a section of Charlotte Salomon’s remarkable autobiographical graphic novel, Life? Or Theater? A Song Play (1940–42). Mordant, psychologically astute and supple in her draftsmanship, Salomon was something of a female Jules Pfeiffer, although her ambitions ran to the epic. (This 1,325-frame magnum opus was made before Salomon was sent to Auschwitz, where she died.) It Is Almost That’s most recent entries include an excerpt from a 2011 photo and prose piece by Bhanu and Rohini Kapil that offers an elliptical reflection on the ravages of ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan. Jane Hammond’s Fallen (Fig. 1), a commemoration in paper leaves, each inscribed with a dead soldier’s name, of American servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Iraq, is ongoing. Some of the book’s contributors are well known—Louise Bourgeois, most notably—and some are not. Most of the works were made on paper, but there are also reproductions of paintings on canvas, by Sue Williams, and of a 6,080-square-foot inlaid cork floor, by Ann Hamilton—a carpet of text that runs in several directions, like the pattern of a Persian rug, and draws from as many historical dialects.
For all its heterogeneity, there is a kind of logic at work in this volume, its pull subtle but strong. Not exactly a continuous narrative, it is more than an assembly of disconnected chapters. It opens with three memoir fragments by Adrian Piper from 1978–80 in which run-in text is superimposed over photographs. The decorousness and equanimity of Piper’s reminiscences are belied by the daily humiliations she reports having suffered in childhood and adolescence; her rage is revealed mainly in the tightly packed, unrelenting cataract of prose—in the refusal to yield even a breath of white space on the page. Two other works from the 1970s follow, including a piece by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha that gives this book its title. Even more dispassionate than Piper’s work, Cha’s It Is Almost That (1977; Fig. 2) is composed of title cards used for a slide presentation. The terse white-on-black text fragments seem to be isolated bits of language instruction, with an emphasis on words for subject identity and position, and can be read as a rudimentary exercise for autobiographical writing. (It is made angry, and horribly sad, only by the knowledge that its author would be murdered by a stranger in 1982.) Before long, we are in the lean, forceful hands of Louise Bourgeois, whose 1947 He Disappeared Into Complete Silence, a suite of nine etchings each paired with a short text, is a macabre, extremely funny and, again, wonderfully laconic series of barbed meditations on the ways of men, and of women.
With Bourgeois, a passage of wry humor takes hold. The incomparable Dorothy Iannone’s Trixie, The Connoisseur (1975–78) is a picaresque graphic tale of puberty, first love and professional ambition; its illustrations and text are both exuberantly explicit and unapologetically naïve. The grimly entertaining series of collage/text pairings in Cozette de Charmoy’s The True of Life of Sweeney Todd (1973), a dark-horse entry, are largely assembled from Victorian etchings, much like Max Ernst’s Femmes Cent Têtes. While not as gruesome as the drama to which its title refers, de Charmoy’s picture essay is fully as surreal as the connection with Ernst implies.
Violence of rather less metaphorical nature follows, beginning with Sue Williams’s bitterly ironic reflections, in the form of annotated figurative paintings, on the physical and emotional abuse of women. Fiona Banner’s Nam (1997), another nearly unreadable avalanche of prose (presented here as an extract), is a consecutive digest, delivered in blocks of unbroken text, of every moment of action in six classic Vietnam War movies, including Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. Hammond’s Fallen follows; the autumnal leaves, which are remarkably realistic, are shown first singly, then in pairs and finally in a jumbled heap, an efficient way of expressing the seemingly unstoppable proliferation of dead bodies in the United States’s latest military engagements. This entry is succeeded by a spirited tour though the front pages of daily British newspapers, conducted by Suzanne Treister in the form of text-and-image drawings configured like alchemy charts—or, an equally strong resemblance, like pinball machines (Alchemy, 2007; Fig. 3).
A segue into deeper historical memory is led off by Carrie Mae Weems’s elegiac 1991–92 photo-text essay on the Sea Islands, a former slave-trading community off the Carolina coast. Molly Springfield’s Translation (2006–08; Fig. 4) is a hand-drawn rendering of the opening chapter of a heavily underlined used copy of Proust’s Swann’s Way. In What Remains (2006), Helen Kim’s photo-text essay about a series of lunchtime meetings with her mother, a few scant detail of the older woman’s Korean background and life as an immigrant are fitfully revealed to her daughter (and to us).
The world of mothers, as object and subject, is extended in Susan Hiller’s 1977–79 photo-text document of her pregnancy, which presents her steadily swelling abdomen as a cross between a grainy, distant hill and a blurry UFO. Eleanor Antin’s hilarious Domestic Peace (1971–72) graphs conversations with her mother during a brief visit home; one axis charts agitation, which is plotted across time per given topic (each chosen in the hope, mostly vain, of avoiding conflict). Between Hiller’s work and Antin’s are a group of Body Maps (2001–06) made by the Bambanani Women’s Group, a collective of HIV-positive South African women who use tracings of their bodies as templates on which to inscribe sometimes harrowing daily challenges, and advice for overcoming them.
There is no best way to read this book, and the affinities I’ve suggested between adjacent works are probably not those that other readers would find. But one thing It Is Almost That urges forcefully is alertness not only to how image meets text in artists’ pageworks, but also to how sequence meets sheet—how the rhythm of reading a book can be folded in to the experience of looking at a single page, and vice versa. It stages conversations across racial, ethnic, geographical and historical boundaries that feel natural. The absence of men feels similarly unforced; these are, simply, the kinds of discussions women have among themselves.
Cumulatively, the collected works’ impression is of questions still open for debate, of the last word being left unsaid. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that the book ends with an unfinished work.) The embrace of the conditional helps explain some striking design choices. This publication has no cover, so the spine exposes its eighteen sewn signatures, each numbered, and two pages must be turned, starting with a blank white top sheet, to discover its title and authors. The mechanics of book production are thus laid bare. Exposed as well, maybe more significantly, is the book’s seemingly provisional state. (In this light, the fact that all contents are printed in black and white lends it the feeling of a low-cost dummy, although print and paper quality are perfectly respectable.) In other words, It Is Almost That scrupulously avoids definitive claims, just as its title announces. Another signature or two might be added—surely we are invited to enjoy the term’s double meaning—without unbalancing the proceedings. And maybe, some day, a fancy cover—although probably not.