Libros Schmibros, Ed Ruscha and Jack Kerouac
Until Oct. 9, the Boyle Heights bookstore-slash-lending library Libros Schmibros is operating a pop-up store in a street-level gallery at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. Its latest project: Thursday's marathon reading of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."
The selection of the book wasn't just because it was written 50 years ago -- which it was (although it was published later, in 1957). Reading "On the Road" underscored the rich relationship between books and culture, how much a novel can capture the imagination and resonate in unexpected ways. In an upstairs gallery, the museum is exhibiting "On the Road," a collection of recent works by Ed Ruscha connected to Kerouac's novel. There are drawings and word paintings with distant mountaintops dwarfed by phrases from the book: "In California you chew the juice out of grapes and spit the skin away, a real luxury," reads one.
Taken out of context, the phrases -- often about food or hunger -- begin to echo with their own narrative. I find Ruscha's pieces compelling and hypnotic, and was entranced by them -- until I walked into the second exhibition room.
That's where I encountered Ruscha's 2009 limited-edition artist book version of "On the Road," with a copy of the book in a case and many of its illustrated pages hanging on the walls.
The real pleasure of Kerouac, I think, is in his run-on sentences, his willful flow, the desire to create something so seamless that he typed it on one long scroll. Like this:
I got on that hot road, and off I went in a brand-new car driven by a Denver businessman of about 35. He went 70. I tingled all over; I counted minutes and subtracted miles. Just ahead, over the rolling wheatfields all golden beneath the distant snow of Estes, I'd be seeing old Denver at last. I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was "Wow!"
In the second room, Kerouac's words -- laid out gorgeously with Ruscha's black and white photography (original, commissioned and found) -- take on equal weight with the artist's work. In comparison, the paintings seemed like notes for a project, skeletal and piecemeal, while the illustrated book felt deep and immersive. Suddenly I could see how much a spare phrase lost when it was removed from its surrounding text -- of course, that may have been part of the point.
The paintings do stand on their own, of course. But for me as a viewer, Ed Rucha's artist edition of On the Road is even more compelling. It was published by Gagosian Gallery and Steidl in 2009, in an edition of 350, signed and leather-bound -- lovely to look at, but not something I can take home anytime soon.
Luckily, the pop-up Libros Schmibros store downstairs has a few used copies still in stock. It generally sells its books for half the cover price, although it is also known to give a neighborhood discount in Boyle Heights.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Libros Schmibros proprietor David Kipen reads from "On the Road" in the popup bookstore at the Hammer. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg