Down the rabbit hole: Melody Owen makes a book

A strange little rabbit: Illustration from Melody Owen's "Looking Glass Book"

“My Dear Friends and Comrades,” the email read. “Happy The New Year! Please come and join me in Celebrating the Completion and Release of a Book I Made!”

The invitation, which was signed “Your friend and mine, Melody Owen,” was too intriguing to resist. So on a rainy Portland Friday evening I slipped into a waterproof jacket and headed to a little concrete triangulation just off of West Burnside Street where the headquarters of a small publishing empire called Publication Studio sits.

Outside the big-windowed storefront on upper Ankeny Street, which at this eastern juncture is really little more than a wisp of a lane, the air was chill. Inside it was warm and comforting, the kind of sudden warm that fogs your glasses, and as my lenses were  clearing back into sight I was greeted with an even warmer smile by Patricia No, one of three people (along with David Knowles and Matthew Stadler) who keep the place running.

“Welcome!” No said brightly, seeming genuinely pleased to have a visitor even though things were running a little behind and the space was still being set up for the evening’s event. Ambient musician Alexis Gideon was fiddling with plug-ins and outlets. No was spreading printed materials onto a table. Owen, the somewhat hesitant star of the show, was checking over the beer and wine supply and looking around expectantly.

I had never met Melody, although I’ve followed her work for several years, at least since the 2001 Oregon Biennial, in which her long wide tablescape Crowns, a fairy-tale concoction of white-paper cutouts stapled and joined into a pristine meadow of delicate rises and falls, stood out as a distinctly personal vision. Since then I’ve seen photographs and videos and sculptures, including one in the shape of a narwhal tusk that was fashioned from a Borneo vine.

I’ve also been intrigued by her collages, comfortably home-feeling yet highly accomplished and imaginative pieces that are often of animals in odd alterations, and often convey a sense of quiet urgency over the animals’ precarious position in the human-manipulated order of things: She’s also published a small collaborative volume called The Disappearing Book, which, as she wrote in her introduction to it, “attempts to address the marvelous nature of some of the many things that are disappearing from the world.” Her art has struck me as both small and surprisingly large. It whispers rather than shouts, but what it whispers has outsized implications. Her work seems very much at the fulcrum between private and public intention.

Tea and turtle: from "Looking Glass Book"

Owen has an eye for the fantastical that’s inherent in the ordinary of the natural world. Her art has long carried wonderland implications. The book whose birth she was celebrating on this night, Looking Glass Book, makes those implications explicit. In it, she’s assembled a selection of collages created from twenty years’ worth of printed material (most of it old copies of National Geographic) to illustrate passages from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and 1871 Through the Looking-Glass. As captivating as the original John Tenniel illustrations are, Owen’s collages have their own studied and quirky charm, and they have the conceptual advantage of stepping into the forefront: Instead of supporting the stories, snippets of the stories support them.

“These books have always been really important to me,” Owen explained as the room began to fill with friends, relatives, and assorted artists and other gallery-world people. “I collect foreign-language editions of them. I pretty much knew them by heart as a child. I learned a lot from them. Philosophically.”

When she was young, she listened over and over to Cyril Ritchard’s recordings of the books, gathering in the actor’s rhythms and the author’s dramatic tone. She bemoans the oversimplifications of the Disney version, which conflates the two books into a single animated film. Much better, and also darker and truer, she declares, is Alice, a 1988 film adaptation by the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer.

Owen speaks in a quiet, high-pitched voice interrupted by small fissures that give it lightness and lift. It’s a sailing, aerodynamic surprise of a voice, like Melanie Griffith’s in Working Girl, and, fittingly, it’s melodious. She’s tall and straight-shouldered, with bright bobbed hair and a sturdy Great Plains stance that grounds her voice. She seems both exotic and plainspoken: Ariel, but also Caddie Woodlawn.

As exotic and intricate as the reproductions are in Looking Glass Book, you couldn’t tell it from the cover, which is a simple bright blue, like the blue of office paper stock. Publication Studio’s walls are lined with narrow shelves that hold copies of dozens of books the studio has published, including the likes of Gobshite Quarterly, Anne Focke’s A Pragmatic Response to Real Circumstances, Oregon artist D.E. May’s The Template Files, and tattoo artist Dan Gilsdorf’s Ad Absurdum.

There’s a picture book of work by legendary Portland calligrapher and teacher Lloyd Reynolds, including some of his brightly grinning puppets, from a retrospective at Reed College: inside a plain green cover distinguished by an elegant watermark, it’s gorgeous. The proof for a fat visual history of New York City, beginning with a portrait of Henry Hudson with a pencil-pointed beard that makes him look very much like Sir Walter Raleigh, weighs down a section of one shelf. On almost all of these books the aesthetic is plain wrapper, although not usually brown: green, tan, purple, red, lots of blues.

Publication Studio is not the sort of place you happen upon unless you’re in the habit of poking through territories where things that people happen upon might exist. Scant yards away around the corner, where the low-rent residential Stewart Hotel and Mary’s Club All Nude Revue melt toward the city’s upscale financial and retail districts, the bustle of Broadway honks and hustles away. Here, in the soft shadows along Ankeny, people eat and drink inside small antique spaces where the buildings on either side of the walkway almost touch at their tops and the night air seems to shimmer in a gaslight glow. This little slant of alley, left over from the days when topography rather than bureaucratic fiat defined the shape of urban passages, is a ghost of a place – a jostling anachronism along the fault line where the stamped-down grids of Northwest and Southwest Portland don’t quite meet. Ankeny is a tuckaway; if not precisely a rabbit hole then certainly a warren, hidden from most eyes.

It’s fitting that Publication Studio, a high-energy but low-profile imprint that claims somewhat mysteriously to be “a maker and destroyer of books,” is tucked away here. And it’s fitting that an artist of Owen’s secret-door inclinations should find it a congenial home for some of her work.

The studio was created in 2009 by No and Stadler, an essayist, publisher (Clear Cut Press), energetic cultural catalyst and novelist: His Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha, built on an elaborate structural mapping of John Le Carré’s novel A Murder of Quality and released by Publication Studio, is a finalist for this year’s Oregon Book Awards. The house’s printing approach is low-tech and old-fashioned but also virtual, creating online meeting places and sponsoring in-the-flesh events. It prints its books on demand (“We thought, ‘How can we make this work with no money?’” No explains), and although it can offer its authors a range of technical niceties, the prevailing ethos seems to be stripped-down and plain: It threatens no coffee tables with collapsing under the weight of lushly produced eye candy.

It’s spawned a looseknit sisterhood of similar publishing houses in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada; Berkeley; and a roving studio that pops up here, there, and the next place across the Midwest. Each house operates on its own, but all of their output is available from any of the others. Looking through the studio’s volumes, you get a double-sided sense of purpose: (1) actually existing in print is extremely important; (2) print should be stripped to its basics, so that reading a text becomes an essential exercise, with no distractions.

A hat with that: from "Looking Glass Book"

So it is, in a way, with Owen’s collages, which in one sense seem nothing but whimsical and decorative, yet when seen in a different light – through the filter of the rabbit hole – become essential precisely because of their disorienting oddity. Like Carroll’s weirdly logical little stories they reflect back, at an acute and telling angle, on the received assumptions that the “ordinary” world on the surface deems important.

For Owen, transforming this collection of collages into book form presented some conceptual challenges. When she created the collages she found herself fascinated not just by the images she chose to put together but also by their backsides – their mirror images, so to speak: the other sides of the pages she’d cut out from magazines, which took on their own accidental associations. Rather than paste her cutouts on a plain backing, she chose to encase the collages in clear glass, so that viewers could see both the intended images on the front side and the unintentional  images on the back.

She could have repeated that process in the book, but it wasn’t economically practical. Instead, she printed each pair of images on facing pages: the “real” collage on the left hand, the “accidental” – and therefore more abstract – collage on the right. The shapes are the same. The content isn’t.

If that sounds somehow radical, it’s also radically conservative: even, in a nonpolitical sense, reactionary. Existing by chronological accident in a virtual age (which she manipulates casually and easily through her emails and Web site), Owen is also, and maybe more essentially, a firm believer in the value and beauty of the tactile. Her art is made up of real physical materials rearranging real space. It has ideas, of course, and in that sense is conceptual. But its biggest idea is: This object is. Her belief in the importance of the touchable, I suspect, fuels her urgency over the vanishing from the natural world of so much that so recently was real. And if it takes imaginary creatures to remind us of what’s being lost … well, that’s real, too.

“Kids look at everything on Google, and … I don’t know; I don’t get it,” Owen said, sounding more elder-statesmanly than she looks. “I just love books. I don’t know how people read them on a Kindle. It’s not the same.”

That would be physical books, with physical pages that you touch and feel and turn. And it would be, at least much of the time, books whose primary purpose is simply to be, because on some small level, they should.

Big publishing houses continue to push for the next best seller. Galleries keep the apparatus of artistic economics spinning along. But as the mainstream surges forward, little pieces continue to tumble off, like pioneers in both the experimental and nostalgic senses of the word, busily reinventing the wheel in shapes and sizes suited to more esoteric terrain. Off the superhighway your wheels might get stuck in a rut, or you might end up on the milk train to Wonderland.

Maybe Michael J. Fox had it right. Maybe we really are going back to the future. And maybe Melody Owen’s headed in both directions at once.


4 Responses.

  1. eva says:

    Great article. And I love her collages.

  2. NATHAN C says:

    Tags at top of the article list “Melanie Owen”. Should be “Melody”

  3. Bob Hicks, this is a great piece. Thank you for your attentive eye and nuanced, stylish writing. Those who want their own copies of Melody Owen’s fabulous book can drop by 717 SW Ankeny Street (check website for open hours), or order anytime online

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