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2016 Best Books: Christopher J Johnson

Books Christopher J Johnson: 2016 Best Books Christopher J Johnson Selects Bees & the Bearable, The Rectangle's Sharp Stare, and I Wish U Would Believe Me as the Best Books of 2016
Christopher J Johnson
Christopher J Johnson lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a resident writer for the Meow Wolf art collective and book reviewer for Garth Clark’s Cfile Foundation. His first book of poetry, &luckier, has been released by the University of Colorado. He is, as of 2016, manager of photo-eye’s Book Division.

Bees & The Bearable
 By Chen Zhe. Jia Zazhi, 2016.
Bees & The Bearable
Photographs by Chen Zhe
“A document of self-inflicted harm,” sounds like a 90’s top ten album; however The Bees & The Bearable is more like a Nabokov novel with images; hard to engage with and utterly compelling. That is misleading; the book is not a work of fiction, however it is a self-authored inquiry into the mind of the writer in a Nabokovian sense. Chen Zhe presents diary-like statements written to an anonymous “you.” The statements are like koans of sadness, loneliness and, also – at times, hope, but they are also building towards something ambiguous; either a release from the depression or a deepening into it – it remains uncertain throughout the work.

The photographs that Chen Zhe inserts between the writing are less like “selfies,” as one might expect, and more like traditional self-portraits with a few close-ups of the harm inflicted: something about the photographs that I notice is that they are not all pictures of the artist in her home, but rather they follow her out into other places. One photograph in particular emerges frequently to my mind, Chen Zhe in a swimming suit with goggles and a swim cap – her face not severe or sad or self-aware, but vacant, vacuous even. It is the same face she wears in many of the pictures, but this one tells the fullest story (even more than any of the text); the self-mutilator is not surrounded by the world no matter where they are, they are always immured in themselves.

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The Rectangle's Sharp StareBy Jenny Källman
Art And Theory Publishing, 2015.
The Rectangle's Sharp Stare
Photographs by Jenny Källman
I had had a different title in this space for months, a title that is – in a certain sense – very similar. Both works explore the theme of isolation (in The Rectangle’s Sharp Stare, this is only in part). What’s astonishing is that both works can show the solitariness of being even while presenting subjects (people) alongside others. These two works are The Oxford Pictures by Paddy Summerfield and then Jenny Kallman’s book.

Kallman’s work, however, conveys something overwhelmingly poetic to me. Something that fills me with a sense of dreams as we remember them – over saturated with light because they, our dreams, aren’t filled out, the scenes are not complete; this is a funny result considering the front-half of the book deals with women who are in prison (hence the title of the book, to reference the small rectangular rooms in which they live) while the latter half deals with just this subject – light itself.

I enjoy every image in this book singularly. Each one is appealing to me and carries a sense of the whole of Kallman’s work too; we are solitary, singular and yet the light falls evenly on all of us.

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I Wish U Would Believe MeBy Jason Vaughn
Deadbeat Club, 2016.
I Wish U Would Believe Me
Photographs by Jason Vaughn
Following the success of Vaughn’s last monograph hide, I Wish U Would Believe Me is quite an unexpected series of photographs; rather than the repetitive, though beautiful, subject matter found in hide this zine presents a range of approaches from portraits to street photography to, of course, buildings and other structures. Vaughn shows through this volume that he is one of the more exciting photographers, well-known and rising both, that, like Matt Eich and Alec Soth, are coming out of the American Midwest.

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