Circular Logic, by Ivan Jurakic, brochure essay written on the occasion of show at Cambridge Galleries, Sept 2009.
"…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know." - Donald Rumsfeld
Books are odd things. Historically, they represent a pinnacle of human achievement and knowledge from the Library of Alexandria, to the Gutenburg press, to the advent of the modern circulating library, yet they have become so ubiquitous that they are now commonly found abandoned in boxes at the local Goodwill like so much unwanted landfill. Since the advent of the Internet, pundits have predicted the death of the book as a relevant form of communication, a cultural has-been. And while the book doesn’t appear to be heading towards extinction, perhaps it has outlived the critical role that it once played. With the predominance of web portals such as Amazon.com, books have increasingly come to be viewed as a division of the entertainment industry, rather than an intellectual mainstay. Ironically, the contemporary book suffers from its own peculiar brand of circular logic. With more books published annually than at any point in human history, one might logically surmise that more people are reading. How then does this explain the constant warnings about our diminishing literacy rates?
Circular logic is by definition a closed system of inquiry that takes for granted the evident truth of the very thing under discussion. It is a way of thinking that often pits scientific reasoning against magical thinking, and the paradox of circular reasoning is that it is often used to stunt real inquiry. False logic was rampant during the Bush administration ranging from folksy wisdom to obfuscating rhetoric, such as Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous remarks regarding the threat of Iraq to US strategic interests. 1 And yet circular reasoning is often accepted at face value because it is self-serving and tends to simplify complex issues. Knowledge and wisdom, truth and veracity, tend to be complicated, nuanced, and difficult to unpack. Circular logic allows us to circumvent complexity to arrive at answers that fit snugly into a 30-second sound bite.
Partheniou’s interpretation of Circular Logic features a series of twenty-seven intimate trompe l'oeil paintings that simultaneously function as text works, found poetry and discrete art objects. Hand painted in acrylic, each canvas reproduces a single period book cover from the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s and forms part of a larger ongoing project titled Handmade Readymade. Beginning with her own books and subsequently adding to her collection with scores of second-hand purchases, Partheniou’s selection of mostly non-fiction titles represents a personal inventory of literature, philosophy, poetry, cosmology and art. Each canvas is constructed to match the dimensions of the book reproduced, and since 2005 the artist has reproduced close to one hundred titles.
At first glance the illusion is competent enough to fool the eye, but upon closer inspection the flat colour palette and the freehand quality of the lettering offsets our expectations of hard-edge book design. The artist’s choice of books elicits the essence of 20th century book design, in particular the book jacket designs of Edward Young, whose original designs for the Penguin Classics line in 1935 helped to define the look of the paperback for several generations. Young’s design hit upon a definitive modern look, and made the most of an effective yet eye-catching layout that acknowledged the limitations of colour printing at the time. His designs were clear and precise and gave the Penguin paperbacks a sense of contemporaneity that offset the cheapness of their production. 2 As much as their content, the design established their allegiance to the ideal of a universalization of knowledge that by extension connected their readers to the larger project of 20th century modernism. Partheniou’s work mines this fortuitous meeting of high and low culture to make her own observations about the connections between modern book design, the distribution of knowledge, and the broader aesthetic explorations and struggles of modernist painting.
Pairing idiosyncratic themes and author’s side-by-side, for Circular Logic the artist elected to display her book paintings within a system of modular glass cubes chosen in response to the new releases display at the central branch of the Cambridge Libraries. Alternately suggesting a futurist kiosk or Rubik’s cube, her display contains a micro-library of twenty-seven titles, connected less by content than by their covers and the ubiquitous use of arrows in each design. The arrows delineate a circuitous path through the structure of the cube, sometimes pointing towards or away from their literary counterparts. A random selection of titles includes: The Use of Lateral Thinking, Gestalt Therapy, Escape from Freedom, and Last Exit to Brooklyn. The logic between these selections is anything but linear; in fact, Partheniou’s choices tend to privilege lateral thinking and subconscious associations over logic and reason. Taken individually, each of the selections confers a level of authority within a specific field of knowledge or expertise. Collectively however, the pairings suggest the possibility for dialogue, debate, disagreement, and ideally collaboration.
Partheniou’s approach is clearly influenced by artmaking strategies that were defined by the first generation of Conceptual artists in the 1960’s and 70s. In retrospect, many of these artists were responding to their own sense of disillusionment with the limits of painting as a medium, and furthermore the limitations imposed by the pristine white walls of galleries and museums. These concerns have remained central to succeeding generations of artists but the lines separating various media and disciplines have blurred. Partheniou’s project slyly bridges the concerns of post-painterly abstraction (surface, flatness, addressing the edge of the picture plain), with the rigours of conceptualism (appropriation, repetition, the use of language). Even the title of her ongoing project alludes to a marriage between the fine art of painting (handmade) and the gamesmanship of conceptual art (readymade).
Once the trick is perceived, the books reveal themselves as counterfeits and as handmade artifacts in a culture predicated upon instantaneous reproduction. Partheniou appropriates the quintessential look of the modern paperback to make a point about our quest for reason and knowledge and the finite intellectual resources available to preserve these lofty goals.
1. “Known Knowns, Known Unknowns And Unknown Unknowns: A Retrospective”, Posted by Hilary Profita, CBS News.com: http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2006/11/09/publiceye/entry2165872.shtml
2. The encapsulating idea of “cheapness and contemporaneity” can be found on the Penguin website: http://www.penguin.co.uk/static/packages/uk/aboutus/history_firstten.html