Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 16, 2008
Nieves Library
Exhibition schedule: Ooga Booga, Los Angeles, March 7–April 3, 2008
Nieves Library. Exhibition image. Courtesy Ooga Booga.

A curtain of clear plastic sleeves hangs in the shop window that serves as the façade to Ooga Booga’s main space. Inside each transparent pocket rests a simple, photocopied, and staple-bound book available for visitors to touch and flip through. In this modest exhibition of zines and artists’ books, the manner of installation complements the temperament of the work on view. Everything is straightforward and accessible.

Ooga Booga, an alternative space in Los Angeles’s Chinatown District, presents for the first time in the United States the complete range of publications issued by the Zurich-based publisher Nieves. Nestled within a network of hip Los Angeles commercial galleries, the exhibition at Ooga Booga makes an implicit statement about an alternative mode of making and selling art—that is, the low-tech and low-price route.

The exhibition is in two parts. In the main space, the complete oeuvre of Nieves publications from 1999 to the present (about two hundred zines and books) is displayed for visitors to peruse. The exhibition’s second component can be found in a small room across the outdoor walkway where the personal collection of contemporary artist publications and zines owned by the publisher of Nieves, Benjamin Sommerhalder, is on view. A goal of the exhibition is to allow viewers the opportunity to browse the range of work published by Nieves and those publications that Sommerhalder has been collecting since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s, thereby revealing the number and variety of artists’ publications currently being produced. Many of the items in the exhibition have an ephemeral quality, which makes it a delight to view and touch them.

While the format of the books and zines published by Nieves is somewhat unvaried, the diversity of ways in which artists have engaged with the book form is impressive. From Mike Mills’s zine of eerily banal photos entitled Children with Skeletons to Tucker Nichols’s coupling of unrefined drawings and text in Menu, the Nieves library is an adventure in homemade experimentation. Nieves provides the simple framework—paper, photocopier, staples, artist—and then waits to see what will happen. From meticulous to minimal, from funny vignettes to drawings so bad they constitute a waste of paper—what ends up inside each publication is determinedly open.

No wall labels or posted didactic texts contextualize the exhibition. Viewers are free to interact with the books on a personal level without the overt mediation of a cultural lesson. Only a small black-and-white pamphlet accompanies the show. It lists the publication history of the press and includes a short essay by independent curator and writer Aaron Rose. Rose’s essay, which was previously printed in ANP Quarterly (“About Nieves,” ANP Quarterly 5 2007: n.p.), attests to the importance of Nieves’s publishing project within global corporate culture. Nieves, according to Rose, serves as a unique point of resistance to big business. Publishing small runs (usually editions of one hundred to two hundred) of artist-designed zines and books, which sell for between eight and twenty-eight dollars, Nieves represents a more accessible mode of art production and consumption in the context of the current art market. Several of the artists who have had books published by Nieves are household names in the contemporary art world (Laura Owens, Marcel Dzama, Larry Clark, and David Shrigley, to name a few), and Nieves puts the work of these artists within reach of young gallery-goers who often attend openings in Los Angeles’s Chinatown but most of whom could never dream of affording the art on view.

In his essay Rose proposes that, “Nieves could possibly be considered the worlds [sic] first zine publishing company. Never before has [sic] one person and a black and white photocopier been responsible for such a prolific body of work spanning such a diverse group of artists.” While the generous nature of the Nieves project is refreshing, Rose’s admiring claims for the publisher are problematic. The creation of a “zine publishing company” goes against the very idea of zines themselves. Traditionally self-published and self-distributed, zines were invented by sci-fi fans in the 1930s and then continued by a multitude of groups and individuals from punks to activists to lonely teenagers living in the Midwest as a means to communicate, connect, and disperse ideas and images into the world without the authorization or backing of a company, editor, publisher, or gallery. Zines are at the heart of the do-it-yourself movement. To have zine publishing companies is to redefine what zines are. For good and for bad, the exhibition reveals that this is what Nieves is doing. In categorizing and marketing these modestly made publications as “Edition of 150” and “out of print,” Nieves’s zines are paradoxical. Zines have always been “out of print” the minute the artist walks away from the mimeograph or photocopy machine. And what exactly is the nature of an “edition” of photocopies?

However, limiting the meaning of this exhibition or the work it contains to a debate about genre categories would be a misfortune. Instead, the Nieves Library exhibition opens up several larger issues concerning the production of art and its relationship to communication, circulation, community, and consumerism—thus intersecting with other “dialogical” art practices that are at the center of current art debates. The Nieves project simultaneously connects with the histories of illustrated books, artists’ books, little magazines, and mail art, which extend from William Blake to Wallace Berman to Allen Ruppersberg. Despite Rose’s boosterish claims, Nieves Library is not so easily fixed within a distinct alternative sphere. In fact the exhibition exposes the project of artist publishing, whether through zines or otherwise, as both inherently complicated and historically rooted. Moreover, the exhibition reveals the fecund space connecting contemporary art and print culture, which has yet to be sufficiently addressed in the scholarship of either field. Between the publications of the New York Dadaists in the early twentieth century to the stacks of zines that can be found today at certain independent bookstores, something elusive continues to grow. The Nieves Library exhibition at Ooga Booga offers a small glimpse into that world.

Lucy Mulroney
PhD candidate, Visual and Cultural Studies Program, University of Rochester