Manny Prieres: Lock Them Out and Bar the Door. Lock Them Out Forevermore.
Opening, Oct. 13, 2012
In the clinically lit antechamber that leads to the main downstairs room of the Spinello Gallery, an illustrated cover of The Holy Bible hangs on the opposite wall of a darkly similar reproduction of the cover for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Standing between two extremes of the Christian-lit heritage, you start to feel the friction that texts have caused on each other, the continuum of change they’ve wrought over entire societies, and the dichotomous chest pain and loin pleasure they ignite within the reader.
Manny Prieries’ show, Lock Them Out and Bar the Door. Lock Them Out Forevermore, presents the artist’s work involving marginalized novels, poetry, and various other texts from an array of countries and time periods. The main display is his Black Book Series, a collection of black tone-on-tone drawings that are meticulously crafted facsimiles of the covers of books that have been banned, censored, burned, and stomped on in places from the McCarthy-era United States, to Nazi Germany, to an often-xenophobic Australia. Grey graphite and gouache ranging from black to blacker were used, and suggest the hidden, clandestine qualities that, when revealed, spawned parental outrage at local libraries and swift action by national legislatures. The brilliantly detailed drawings look a bit like the book cover posters you’d find in a Barnes and Noble, except these are true to size and retain the hand-made qualities of graphitic scratches and deep control over the inky luminescence of the gouache.
Most of the texts used have gone on to become canonized and read wide and long by pimply faced kids in high school and college, among them Song of Solomon, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby. These and other massively consumed books have and continue to be removed from schools and libraries, and Prieres’ encodes them with the diabolic energy they’re accused of having. Other books exist further out on the outskirts but have made their own controversial impacts. Daddy’s Roommate, a children’s book written and illustrated by Michael Willhoite, tells the story of a boy whose divorced father now lives with his gay partner and communicates the normalcy of a home with homosexual parents. The book is number 2 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most challenged books, clocking over 50,000 attempts at banning in libraries since its publication in 1991. L. Ron Hubbard’s pulpy sci-fi smash Dianetics – a foundational text for Scientology – has been banned in Russia, along with the rest of Scientology.
Prieres plays historian, but by using the book covers he vacates the content of the texts and neuters them – sublimating literary force for somewhat sterile, objets d’art. But at the same time he bestows a dark, cerebro-sexual allure that creates a dialogue, that induces viewers to ask, “Why was this banned?” Like much of Prieres’ work, the show brims with occult secrecy, but yet maintains a historical trajectory.
Upstairs there are three silkscreened paintings, each containing the entire text of each page from Howl, The Anarchist’s Cookbook, and Lolita, superimposed on top of one another. The effect is a near-total black out, confusion brought on by too much input - a silencing by way of noise. These paintings do more to call out the efforts at erasure of thought and story in the interest of controlling discourse. Nazi Germany, before attempting the total extermination of European Jewry, only allowed the written word of Jews to be issued by the small publishing house Schocken Verlag, and eventually all works were banned in the run up to the Holocaust (particularly high on the Nazi’s naughty list was Franz Kafka).
The rest of the pieces upstairs felt like the weaker part of the show. They contained subversive platitudes and propaganda lines taken from various sources – including Black Sabbath lyrics, the concentration camp slogan “work sets you free,” and “Left Behind,” a reference to the fictional series dealing with Christian eschatology. The phrases are placed in front of (and in some cases, behind) ornate graphics of flowers, all of them imbued with the same marks from graphite and mirroring character of black. These pieces reflect the aesthetics and zeitgeist that Prieres has been working within: punk and black metal, evil supernaturalism, the bleaker corners of the immigrant experience. Prieres’ dad is a Cuban exile and writer who’s written several books on the experience of banishment, the first of which Prieres designed the cover for when he was seventeen.
Much of the effect of the show, beyond aesthetic judgment, depends on whether the viewer has read the damn things, as well as whatever preconceived notions might be had about the books, their authors, and the film and music references that are used. Prieres’ work as a graphic designer greatly influences his work and it shows in the attention to detail and in the imagined collaboration with the range of writers culled for the show. The history of banning books and other media reveals their importance in forging norms and forming the very stuff of cultures and people. Prieres shows the range of narratives, attitudes, and information that’s been tagged as malignant and destructive. Some are more easily attacked, such as The Satanic Bible and The Anarchist Cookbook, but many are implicated only for their explicit sexuality and violence, even though they hold moral instruction and true-life depictions.
Lock Them Out and Bar the Door. Lock Them Out Forevermore is a potent revelation that, even in the supposedly open and fluid age of information flows, there exists a sinister intent to control, ebb the flow, and restrict what is consumed. An intent best articulated by Michael Mussmano, who gave his colorful, highly literate take on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer when it was published: “Cancer is not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of humanity.” It gives pause to thought for what is truly inhuman and depraved.
Rob Goyanes is a writer based in Miami, FL.view all articles from this author