Amitin's Bookstore on Washington Avenue is on the verge of closing, the victim of another real-estate shuffle in a long line of half-hearted attempts to gentrify downtown St. Louis. Michael Byron's Amitin Notebook Project is as fitting a tribute to the place as we could hope for. Indeed, Byron's project, now on view at the Forum for Contemporary Art, isn't just about the bookstore; it is the store's progeny. It was born of the store and, in an odd way, resembles the place. Now, the Notebook Project bears witness to the store's imminent demise, like an adult child anticipating the death of an aging parent.
To appreciate Byron's Amitin Notebook Project, one has to understand something about Amitin's. It is merely the latest incarnation of the Amitin bookstore line, which can be traced back to the patriarch, A. Amitin, who brought his business to St. Louis from Detroit in the 1920s. He opened a shop on Pine Street downtown. Larry Amitin eventually took over the business and in 1989 moved the store into its current location at 1207 Washington Ave., in the crumbling ruins of the city's former garment district.
Amitin's Bookstore inhabits an old garment-outlet store, dated around the turn of the century. The store's neighbors on Washington include a cafeteria (closed), a shoe-repair shop and a Bee Hat Co. outlet (both still open). If you squint real hard and block out the infiltration of doomed dance clubs along the avenue, you can almost imagine yourself back in the days when men wore hats and ties, people ate at automats and downtown St. Louis had a pulse.
That history and others live again within Amitin's walls. Nothing has been done to its century-old interior, save for the installation of impossibly high bookshelves and countless books. Larry Amitin trades in his share of first editions, but that's not what the store is about; it's better described as a clearinghouse for the obsolete, the kind of place where Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer would shop were he alive and well and living in St. Louis. Among the expected novels, poetry, art and history books, Amitin's also offers printed ephemera that has simply fallen out of time: typewriter manuals, obscure (but not rare) phonographic records, '40s-era home-decorating guides, S&H Greenstamp wish books, paperback biographies of forgotten teen idols -- with the grocery-story price labels still firmly affixed.
Notebooks can be found in the mix as well, some heavily used, others hardly touched. One of these gently worn notebooks became the starting point for Byron's Amitin Notebook Project. He purchased it at the store in 1999, removed the binding and started to work on the book's hundreds of yellowing pages.
Byron took the notebook's pages, some of which contained scrawled notes and addresses, and added his own doodles, dates and pictures. He ran some of the pages through a printer, and the resulting digital images clash sharply with the yellowing paper. He painted, scrawled, printed or glued additional information on other pages, leaving some chock-full, others nearly bare. The 55 drawings on display in this exhibition comprise nothing less than an extended palimpsest of history.
If anyone was up to this sticky task it was certainly Byron, a professor at Washington University whose increasingly conceptual oeuvre is driven by a formidable intellect and a calculating eye. The Amitin Notebook Project is softer around the edges than some of Byron's previous works; nostalgia and vulnerability come very much into play here, but he doesn't make you feel guilty for enjoying those feelings.
Certain themes reveal themselves, most especially one of vision. Little eyes, drawn, painted or glued to the paper, pop up everywhere, demanding to be looked at and calling attention to the re-vision techniques Byron has employed on each page.
The inevitability of time's passage emerges as another theme. Everywhere Byron has inserted dates cut from old newspapers or scribbled obsessively by hand. We're left to guess their significance, if they have any; they seem somehow more powerful for being mute. Here and there, collaged images from old textbooks or advertisements remind us of bygone modes of dress, transportation and communication. These pieces carry the dusty nostalgia that Kit Keith specializes in, though Byron's Notebook Project is at once more systematic and more stream-of-consciousness than Keith's collages and assemblages.
Finally, there's an overriding sense of futility in many of these drawings that might itself be the project's signature theme. One sad-sack male figure pops up now and again, a kind of symbol of human mortality. On another page is an illustration of one of the ugliest objects in America, a pathetic-looking pink sculpture, on the verge of complete collapse. Several of the pages contain scientific-looking diagrams that yield no useful information, such as the one labeled a pile of 31 rocks on a stage made out of 427 squares with seven primary squares gilt in gold or silver.
Along with futility, a kind of obsessive, quasi-scientific spirit pervades the entire Amitin Notebook Project, which actually consists of 239 drawings, separated into four categories: "Master Suite" (the 55 drawings on view at the Forum); "Offspring and Outtakes" (not on view); and "Destroyed" (less successful drawings that were burned; their ashes are contained in an urn placed near the "Master Suite" drawings). Its as if a crazed anthropologist had set out to chart every cultural ramification ever caused or contained by the bookstore. It's a beautiful, inevitable failure, like the store itself.
But the brittle pages of Byron's Project nevertheless manage a shaky hold on the bookstore's significance, simultaneously paying homage and acknowledging the inevitable forces of 21st-century market capitalism that will make it obsolete. And it reminds us that even larger issues are at stake. Because the fate of Amitin's is the fate of the city of St. Louis or, for that matter, Detroit or Buffalo or any of this country's once-vital metropolises that now maintain only the most tenuous hold on a tertiary rank. To survive, in whatever form, they have to be reconfigured, and their future scheme will likely hold no place for anachronisms like Amitin's.
Odd that a set of little drawings on yellowing paper can contain an idea as large as history itself. Odd, and somehow inevitable.
Upstairs at the Forum, Warren Rosser's paintings also tackle large ideas, but they do so on a bigger scale and with a much louder palette. His new series of abstract paintings, titled Repeat Offender, spins off an idea that goes back at least a few years in Rosser's career. In 1999, a sabbatical from the Kansas City Art Institute allowed him to produce Simultaneous Contrast, an exhibition of large canvases with complex underpaintings and overlays of forms in tension both with one another and the background space. In 2000, Rosser's Hybrid View exhibition featured split-screen formats in which ovoid forms with tails appear to scoot around in indeterminate, animated space.
Repeat Offender is the next step in this exploration. In these monumental acrylic paintings on canvas, Rosser streamlines his favored icon -- the ovoid has lost its tail, and gained two stumpy, earlike projections. The icon abounds with associations; it could be a nuclear symbol or a traffic sign or a graphic character denoting human head. Whatever it is, it's the main character in Rosser's abstract narratives, and it just won't sit still, bouncing around the canvas, zipping from one section to another, clashing and crashing with everything it touches.
Rosser's paintings are full of nervous reverberation; they seem to want to say something about the indeterminacy of space and time. They imply science without being scientific at all. Indeed, his forms are insistently handmade and low-tech, delineated with masking tape and blurred with the use of a squeegee. The paintings play out like pages from an operatic score, an ode to nuclear physics performed on a ukulele. What fun!