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Literary readings get a new lens at LACMA

September 21, 2010 | 11:50 am

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Walk through the streetlight installation at LACMA, get a ticket and then head east to enter LACMA through its Ahmanson building; on the left is an alcove that opens out into to the Art Catalogs bookstore. It's not the museum gift shop: it's owned and curated by Dagny Janss Corcoran, focusing on art catalogs -- from the collectible to the affordable -- and other art books. And over the last few days, it has been one of the liveliest literary places around.

On Sunday, British writer Tom McCarthy, whose new novel "C" is currently on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, read and spoke with Chris Kraus, an editor with Semiotext(e). On Monday, a Hollywood crowd turned out to see Evgenia Citkowitz talk about her debut short story collection, "Ether," with Annette Bening.

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What's interesting was that these conversations were not simply literary discussions transposed from, say, a library into a different kind of bookstore space. Instead, they had a different spin. McCarthy came to Corcoran's attention as a conceptual artist, and the questions Kraus brought to the table were steeped in the language of art criticism. Rather than talk about McCarthy's literary influences, like Pynchon, the conversation moved to deeper, darker impulses driving the work, like Freud and death.

It's not that such a discussion might not have happened in a more traditionally bookish setting, but that here, in this space and with Corcoran's introduction detailing some of McCarthy's conceptual artworks, the way into the book seemed inherently different.

So, too, was the conversation between Bening and Citkowitz about Citkowitz's debut collection "Ether." Bening, an Oscar-nominated actress, came at her questions through the lens of character and creation. Where does a character come from? When does backstory come in? How does the story distill into what we read on the page? Bening, who knows Citkowitz socially, proved an incisive questioner, and when given the opportunity the audience immediately jumped in. Actor Tim Curry asked about the story Citkowitz had read, and then another did, leading to a genuine discussion of the work between the audience and author. Rarely do readings open up so fully.

Corcoran has had Art Catalogs since 1977 -- first above the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, later behind Gagosian, then as a mail-order business from a cattle ranch and later at MOCA -- and opened it at LACMA in February of this year. The daughter of developer and art collector Edwin Janss and the ex-wife of gallerist Jim Corcoran, she's steeped in the art world. She schedules the readings according to her own vision -- and judging by the recent readings at her store, she has a good eye.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Above, from left: Dagny Janss Corcoran, Tom McCarthy and Chris Kraus. Below: Evgenia Citkowitz and Annette Bening, with Roy Lichtenstein plates in the far background. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

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