Book Review Bottom of the Lake Photographs by Christian Patterson Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Putting aside for a moment its near-obsolescence in contemporary life, the phone book is still largely understood as a workhorse reference source, facilitating connections to a local populace. For the insider, the passage of time will likely transform it into a dog-eared crib sheet of the favorite and familiar.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins
Bottom of the Lake
Photographs by Christian Patterson
Koenig Books, Berlin, Germany, 2015. 256 pp., 65 color illustrations.
Putting aside for a moment its near-obsolescence in contemporary life, the phone book is still largely understood as a workhorse reference source, facilitating connections to a local populace. For the insider, the passage of time will likely transform it into a dog-eared crib sheet of the favorite and familiar. For the uninitiated, the phone book’s relative girth and shelf-life may indicate a community’s size and stability, but the names and numbers within all carry equal weight. Christian Patterson’s new book, Bottom of the Lake, is first a 175-page facsimile of his family’s telephone book for his hometown, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin from February 1973 (he was born the year before). He mines the mundane utility of the phone book’s white and yellow pages in the creation of his art, teasing out through doodling pen, photographs and other visual insertions, unintentional humor and new layers of meaning. He tells us where to start looking; yet it’s by no means immediately clear from the spin-off Patterson creates what elements of the original struck a familiar cord, as his interventions within rarely seem overtly personal or close to home.
In Patterson’s hands, the Fond du Lac phone book is re-presented as a directory of word play and latent meanings. John P. Sukup and Helen W. Supple are irresistible entries, as is the company Pants & Pants, next to which he writes “Heavy Breathing.” Where a page corner notes “Churches-Claim” as inclusive of its contents, Patterson writes in “but don’t know shit” and on another page by “Physicians-Pickling,” he writes: “(Embalmers).” A teased out theme of (passing) gas shifts from bathroom humor to a running commentary on President Nixon and the 1973 oil crisis, along with his infamously outed secret telephone recordings. Handwritten notes and text panel inserts read “SAVE YOUR GAS FOR NIXON,” “Nixon wired his phone,” “Nixon/Exxon,” and on the back cover “Impeach Crooks.” A cartoon man rolling a keg in a beer distributor ad recurs later in a drawing by Patterson, now as Nixon pushing an Exxon oil barrel.
In Patterson’s last book, Redheaded Peckerwood, the photographic banal became a narrative springboard, animated by the words within and the readers’ imaginative power. In Bottom of the Lake, the photographs’ function is a bit more opaque. Their mood is cold, dark and matter of fact. Bars at night, patches of asphalt and snowy ground, lake-side views and interior slices of framed out wooden structures, presumably conjuring Fond du Lac, are superimposed on pages of the phone book. Black and white photographs are joined by color, in which a pale blue palette is established, beginning on the book’s cover. Industrial set-ups feature a powder blue rotary phone in a recurring role. Held by a pair of hands in white archivist gloves, the phone appears both assembled and dissembled, as functional utility and mysterious relic, not unlike Patterson’s treatment of the phone book itself. Despite their cool emotional tone, the photographs seem to stand in for what Patterson “called up” in this revisiting of Bottom of the Lake — things that persist — the snow, the water, the light house and so many bars.
There’s a phone number on the back of the book that the reader can repeatedly call to listen to dozens of audio recordings that echo Patterson’s word play and the ambiguous meaning of his photographs. I imagine the blue phone to be ringing somewhere in Wisconsin when I made these calls, perhaps put together and later undone — the inevitable end to a fleeting auditory experience. The audio quality of these one-way transmissions is poor, lending them the feel of a “dial-a-“ line (pre-recorded weather report, or daily horoscopes) and even sometimes an eavesdropped phone conversation. In creating his strange amalgam of faithful facsimile and reanimation of a decades-old reference source, Patterson stirs up questions about obsolescence and the ephemeral and what it can mean to disrupt a system’s natural demise and drift toward opacity of meaning. It’s all listening in and scanning over for us, until Patterson offers an opening to this now index of other things, giving resonance to the shallow gags, and reverberation to photographs so insistently stock.—KAREN JENKINS
KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.
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