The Book as Object and Event in the Works of John Latham

By Kathryn Brown.

Published by The International Journal of the Book

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This paper analyzes the signifying potential of books as objects in the book reliefs of British artist, John Latham (1921-2006). Throughout his career, Latham used fiction, scientific books and religious texts to exploit the tension between the book as object and as a vehicle for linguistic communication. Not only do Latham’s works use actual books, but they frequently do so in such a way that texts are cut, covered, burnt or torn. The text itself is simultaneously offered to and denied the reader. As a consequence, two forms of seeing are set against each other: reading and the perception of the book itself. I locate Latham’s works in the Western still life tradition (in particular the works of Vincent van Gogh) in which the representation of books plays a major role and argue that Latham’s works develop such visual experiments by making books signify in ways that are specifically at odds with the notion of them being containers of linguistic sense. At a time when texts are increasingly circulated in the form of electronic media, I consider how the use of the book as object in visual art can raise powerful issues of signification beyond the purely textual and can call into question our physical and intellectual relationship with the printed word. In 2005, as part of a retrospective of Latham’s works in London, the Tate Britain withdrew one of Latham’s works that featured editions of various religious texts that had been cut apart on the grounds that some religious groups might find the work offensive. In the debates that ensued about the appropriateness of withdrawing the work, the social and artistic potential of the book as cultural artefact was shown to remain as powerful as ever.

Keywords: John Latham, Still Life, Art Object, Van Gogh, Book Relief, Tate Gallery

International Journal of the Book, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp.23-34. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.156MB).

Dr Kathryn Brown

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of Kent, Vancouver, Canterbury, UK

Dr. Kathryn Brown is a Research Fellow in the School of Drama, Film and Visual Art at the University of Kent, Canterbury, United Kingdom. She has papers published and forthcoming on nineteenth-century French painting, aesthetics and contemporary art.

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