Coming up on March 23, Mass MoCA is going to open Life’s Work, a two-artist show featuring the work of Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera – you can read my articles on Phillips and Carrera at the Transcript site.
Carrera’s work is culled from his 2010 book from Chronicle, “Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities,” which you may be compelled to purchase once you see his work. If a natural history museum can be thought of as an epic poem, then Carrera’s is best described as a collection of visual haiku. Complete with demonstrative images pulled from their original purpose — giving form to what words describe in a dictionary — and recontextualized for the purpose of standing alone and together, Pictorial Webster’s is an example of reference book as tidy art installation, so it only makes sense that it all comes full circle in the Mass MoCA galleries.
We sometimes think of pictures as more direct than words — after all, they can just plainly show you what words sometimes struggle to get across. It seems a simpler intellectual transaction, and that’s probably why it’s easier to get someone to watch a TV show rather than read a book. However, pictures do have their limits — and when taken away from words, they can spur on greater mysteries than originally intended.
You might be able to look at an elegant engraving of a voltameter and you might be able to speculate on its possible purpose, but it’s nearly impossible to do more without the words that spell out its history and its uses, as well as any intricacies that might be of interest when speaking of voltameters. And the same goes for volutas, visites and voltaic piles. Without explanation, they are curiosities.
Life’s Work – and therefore Pictorial Webster’s – is the result of Carrera’s effort to track down a collection of engravings that were originally used in 19th-century editions of Webster’s Dictionary — you know, those little drawings that are scattered throughout the texts? This particular work is inspired by Carrera’s encounter with the 1898 edition of the dictionary, which he found while puttering around his grandmother’s stone farmhouse in 1995. As such, Carrera’s effort served as a springboard for the history of dictionaries, as well as dictionary illustration, and also a detailed study on the history of engravers who work for dictionaries and their technical methods.
It is also a celebration of the unknown and the knowledge we all grasp for that is always just inches away but never quite touching our fingertips. If nothing else, it will introduce you to items you probably never thought you would encounter, like the Insignia of the Order of the Garter or a Bohemian Chatterer or a Whirling Table — that last one sounds like a lot of fun!
In one of his accompanying essays, Carrera describes Pictorial Webster’s in terms of the wunderkammers — curiosity cabinets of specimens that gave rise to full-on natural history museums — and that is a very apt way to describe it. The book’s subtitle is apt in that respect, but Carrera also addresses the books very pure exercise of recontextualizing scores of objects, many lost to time. Almost every contemporary artist uses the word “recontextualization” at some point in his career to describe the simple action of taking an item out of its place of use — and therefore, bereft of its actual purpose — and putting it in another place from which meaning or irony will spring forth. This other place is usually a work of art in a gallery.
This is certainly how wunderkammers work, but the further context in the objects within them is knowledge. In Pictorial Webster’s there really is no new context that the object is placed inside and that vacuum of existence is part of the new context. The other part is the item next to it on the page that has also been subject to recontextualization — and then the entire page of items functioning as parts in a whole other body. In this way, Pictorial Webster’s is an exercise in levels upon levels upon levels.
But what does it all mean?
It means what you want it to — or nothing at all.
There’s a beauty to page 147 which, under the heading “Friendship,” puts five different examples of french horns alongside several items that involve friction — friction wheels, frictional gearing, friction clutch, friction tube and friction cones. What it leaves to you, the reader, to do is notice that all these items bear a physical resemblance. Frigate is obviously on the same page because “frig” is like a verbal pun to align with “frict,” but why exactly is fretted on the same page? And being an adjective — I don’t think the illustration is depicting a verb — what does it mean on its own? Something to ponder.
And that’s what Pictorial Webster’s works best as — impetus to ponder. It’s an abstract mind game with no answer — a crossword puzzle for people who like philosophy and psychology, or just incredibly curious children. If half of that can be replicated in Life’s Works then it’s going to be a wonderful show.