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BOOKS | "From Here to There: Alec Soth's America" tracks the artist's roaming eye
Paging through the catalog to Alec Soth's exhibit From Here to There, I wondered why more hasn't been said about the similarities between Soth and Bob Dylan. Both are native Minnesotans, both have a sharp eye for detail and a gift for fluid narrative, and both have a Teflon-like imperviousness to critical deconstruction.
There's the requisite amount of critical analysis in the catalog—from curator Siri Engberg, writer Geoff Dyer, and others—but the beauty of Soth's work is that, unlike much contemporary art, it neither requires nor particularly rewards critical analysis. It doesn't need to be explained, and the more you try to explain it (I've done my share of 'splaining, writing a profile of Soth for METRO and a review of the exhibit for the Daily Planet), the the more it eludes your grasp. Soth sat down with Bartholomew Ryan for a long interview published in the volume, and dutifully answers many of the same questions that were also asked by me and by many others. We learn how the work came to be, but the essential mystery of Soth's images remains—because, of course, the images are mysterious to Soth too. That's the point.
In our conversation, Soth called the catalog's publication "a major event" for him—and it is, not only because it documents the comprehensive and lovingly arranged survey exhibit. Soth is a great aficionado of photography books, and he conceives his projects as books more fundamentally than he thinks of them as museum exhibits. From Here to There continues the Walker Art Center's very welcome habit of thinking outside the box when it comes to catalogs: Peter Eleey's The Quick and the Dead is a brilliantly elliptical rendition of the challenging ideas in that important show, and the Walker is currently encouraging visitors to create their own DIY catalogs by assembling cards collected at various installations.
Soth resisted the idea of putting an image on the cover of the catalog—rejecting the idea as being too obvious, and too reductive—and instead the fabric-bound hardcover is embossed with words in charmingly dusty fonts. (From Here to There will likely represent the peak of the Cooper Black revival.) The words, describing the book's contents in a playful manner ("build your own treehouse, sleeping it off in rapid city, how to read the clouds," etc.), give a hint before you even open the volume that the words inside will only take you so far.
Fortunately, the book contains more than critics' analyses. There are plates representing the exhibit's images, pages republishing some of Soth's blog entries in ironically tactile raised letters, and a kind of art-book Izzy scoop: a little paper volume chronicling the artist's search for The Loneliest Man in Missouri tucked into a pocket in the back cover.
Of course, the superdeluxe souvenir of From Here to There would be a piece of the exhibit itself: one of the 300 copies of Soth's Broken Manual now on display at the Walker. For a 13.3rd of the cost, though, the exhibit catalog will make you or an arthound on your holiday shopping list very happy—especially if you get the book signed by the artist, which you can do at the Walker's gift shop from 6-8 p.m. on November 11.
©2010 Jay Gabler