“What is your secret book?” Alexandra Grant asks the assembled audience. “Everyone has one.” This was in response to a question from the evening’s moderator, as to how and why she as an artist and actor Keanu Reeves came to be partners in the limited-run indie publishing company, X Artists’ Books, XAB for short. They, along with author Sylvan Oswald, gathered under the aegis of the PEN USA Center to present their project and celebrate its newest title, Oswald’s High Winds. It’s the last in what may be the only four titles they’ll present. As of now it’s unclear if they have another one in mind; when they undertook the task, they had four, and that was supposed to be that. But considering the critical and even popular (for arcane avant-garde literary art projects at least) acclaim, and that one of their mantras is “honoring the compulsion to create,” it seems likely we will hear from them again before too long.
Shadows, by Keanu Reeves & Alexandra Grant
In the meantime, they’ve produced those four core titles, and they’re gorgeous volumes. Side note: it’s more like four titles plus two other halves, but that doesn’t equal five. One of those four also exists as a limited edition special release; and before XAB started, Reeves and Grant produced Shadows, a slim but handsome collection of moving and sophisticated poems by Reeves along with evocative, mysterious photographs of him — though being all in silhouette you can’t see his face — by Grant. It was received as an intriguing, eccentric collaboration at the time, but now it seems a kind of precursor to XAB, where they caught the book bug. Perhaps, per Grant’s question to the room, Shadows was Keanu’s secret book. The first XAB release, The Artists’ Prison, was definitely Alexandra’s.
Grant has been an acclaimed visual artist, known for paintings and also for her iconic “Love House” project across the street from the Watts Towers. But even in more conventional visually-oriented mediums, her practice was always was always text-based and dedicated to social engagement. Hers has long been a realm of language systems, idiomatic imagery, stylized dialog, and staged vignettes, so when on an artist residency at a former prison in France that had been converted into an art school and studios she describes having a fully formed vision of this book, it can be understood as not so utterly strange as it must have seemed in the moment. And so, The Artists’ Prison was not a secret for long.
The Artists’ Prison is a Sartre-esque existential litany, a kind of Our Town art-world satire in which the crimes and punishments of a rogue’s gallery of characters are recorded. Told in the third person in the heavily, and hilariously, redacted voice of the warden — the better to convey the added layer of how the personalities are perceived and filtered by the authorities — the characters confront, embody, and lyrically deconstruct literary and anthropological archetypes. It’s a rather Jungian array which Grant, as its author, concedes could well all be considered aspects of herself. With rich Schadenfreude and useful insights into art world dysfunction, it’s satire and it’s funny because it’s true. The suite of images by Eve Wood really are autonomous parallel companions rather than illustrations. They have the same haunted, hunted, indomitable, fragile spirit as the stories, but are not literal to them. XAB projects proceed with a serious art/design component that has its own life within both the object and concept, miles beyond the merely illustrational. “Books are objects,” says Grant, “not just information. Bring them into the world with love. It’s why we focus on collaborations and all these people doing things they don’t normally do.”
From The Artist Prison, by Alexandra Grant
Playwright Sylvan Oswald, for example, has not written a play this time. In a further act of letting go (scary for a writer), he is excited about how in High Winds, images are more than storyline accompaniments, they are independently operational “vehicles for the words.” In truth it is a magically unreal yet familiar and empathetic tale, which Oswald offered to the PEN Center crowd as “a bedtime story for adults, in which a trans guy who can’t sleep and goes for a drive, then there’s magic, and some laws of physics get bent.” The serenely psychedelic, crisp, jaunty, retro, high 80’s delight of the abstract landscape, anatomical, and atmospheric motifs in the art and graphics of the book incite a liminal state which is ideal for absorbing the story. “It’s not escapism,” Oswald says, “it’s just other.”
Two of the works are in some ways more conventionally understood as art books, in that they follow a more usual way of pairing art and language — but in both cases, the avant-garde sensibility and poetic license for addressing social fundamentals makes perfect sense in regards to XAB’s and Alexandra Grant’s own practice. The Words of Others (Palabras ajenas) is the first proper English translation of Argentine artist León Ferrari’s 1967 critique of American imperialism. It corresponded with a sweeping gallery survey and performative reading at REDCAT as part of the Pacific Standard Time LA|LA initiative. And (Zus), a “visual essay” by French photographer Benoît Fougeirol, whose interest in architecture is both material and metaphorical, even metaphysical. “To be vulnerable,” says Grant. “That’s our character as a publisher. And when in doubt, just found your own house.”
Keanu Reeves & Alexandra Grant speaking about and reading from Shadows
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, as well as HuffPost, Vice, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake,Artillery, Juxtapoz, ALTA Journal of California, Palm Springs Life, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange.