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Dexter Sinister
Gallery 400
UIC College of Architecture and Art, 400 S. Peoria Street (Art and Design Hall, First Floor) , Chicago, IL 60607
September 7, 2010 - October 23, 2010

Dexter Sinister: An Exquisite Corpse Style Essay
by Thea Liberty Nichols




Dexter Sinister is the name adopted by David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey for their joint activities as artists, writers, editors, graphic designers and publishers. Evoking the equal parts collaborative and dissonant practice of Dexter Sinister, Anthony Elms, Assistant Director of Gallery 400 and curator of the show, kindly agreed to blindly co-write the following text with me using a sort of “exquisite corpse” framework I made up: I would write a paragraph (or two, or simply a single sentence, constantly breaking my own rules as befits the surrealist game), and send him the last sentence of the paragraph, which he would use to craft a new paragraph of his own. We went back and forth over email for over a week.  This is the resultant piece we cobbled together, with Anthony’s contributions represented in bold face, it should be noted that this is not intended as a review or a work of criticism, rather it is a collaborative essay about the exhibition.

The Plastic Arts features block after block of black vinyl wall text designed by Dexter Sinister and created using the outmoded programming language “MetaFont.” As the content of the text varies, so too does the form of the font. Alternating between loopy, curlicue cursive and an angular font utilized for William James' "Habit," the majority of the piece is written in their proprietary “Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-Font.”

Dexter Sinister. Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-Font font.

The text itself is an adapted version of the exhibition catalog for their show The Curse of Bigness, on view now at the Queens Museum of Art, which explores the rewards, and challenges, of size. Size, or, more accurately, scale, is a lynchpin of Dexter Sinister’s practice, whether it’s through limiting the purchase of their catalogs in parcels of either 1 or 100, mindfulness of production runs and distribution strategies which eschew waste,

or the employment of resourceful localized approaches that allow them to nimbly navigate their desired economy of scale. But this hardly means that their scale impacts the scope of their practice.

Which, ultimately, is in part about reading and communication. So, you are allowed choices: focused or distracted, studious or fun, intense or cursory, deep or surface. Either way you should get lost in your attentiveness and can't tell the differences between supposedly diametrically opposed terms. As poet Tan Lin says in his recent book Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking: “The most beautiful books are the most invisible ones, just as a pink chemise with embroidered flowers by Marc Jacobs would be almost meaningless without a label and just as a Prada shoe should carry a red stripe down its sole or a bag by Louis Vuitton should have its initials prominently scrambled all over its surface in order to be read. And by read I mean not read in any meaningful way. After all, who has really read a bag by Louis Vuitton or a sweater with a deliberately unraveled collar by Martin Margiela although I have read these things for many hours of the afternoon?”

Prior to this quotation, Tan Lin issues his directive on the proper function of writing; "Like our various selves, literature should function as a pattern with a label on it, like the lines in a parking lot at the local A&P or the indistinguishable, partially imagined street names found in private, gated communities throughout North America: Elm Place, Elm Tree Lane, Ellingham, Elsingham, Ellen Tree Road, Elmwood Ave., Elm Circle Rd., etc." The meaning, of course, is crystal clear; Elm. Or Elms. As in Anthony Elms.

In preparing for the exhibition, Elms recounts a trip made to the Just-In-Time Workshop & Occasional Bookstore, Dexter Sinister’s headquarters located on the Lower East Side in New York City, on Gallery 400’s indispensable blog. In it, he outlines a space teeming with lo-fi economical innovations (a step stool with a bucket of ice and oscillating fan operating as a makeshift air conditioner) and artists who are open to multiple channels of exploration and realms of experience (see YouTube octopus camouflage video). This is not unlike Elms himself, whom daily chronicles the adamantly “hardcopy” writing and music he consumes.

Equally interesting, and perhaps more germane to our topic, is his post on the food for thought, (what he terms material for “eyes” & “ears”) that crossed his desk when thinking and writing about Dexter Sinister. While wading through an omnivorous pool of primary source media, he noted that the process of doing such research itself came to represent, for him, the essence of Dexter Sinister. Akin to Elms’ role as Editor of the Whitewalls imprint, Dexter Sinister writes, designs and edits print publications and are as much involved with the process of creating the publications as they are with its resultant product. And again, not unlike Elms on both his personal and work blogs, Dexter Sinister’s process is both self-reflexive and transparent; one of the scant artworks in The Plastic Arts is a painting that was also featured on the cover of their serial publication Dot Dot Dot, now in its 20th and final issue.

Don't be fooled, this isn't at all about me--I just organized the affair, even if I am on occasion the punch line. So I have an archival impulse, no one is perfect. The painting, by the way, is by Philomene Pirecki, Grey Painting: Text Version 2, 2008, and is a nice one. Crucial to the project. Too much can be made of self-reflexivity. It is more interesting to consider how a form of communication explains itself just by the manner in which it relays information. The inherent formalities, prioritization and forms that direct what is said and how. If Dexter Sinister sometime can come across as self-reflexive--quoting themselves, reprinting essays in different forms, reusing content-- it is not to refer to themselves, but to the channels of distribution, editing and presentation. To highlight that what is said is just one link in the chain. Now, do you make this chain-link one part of an anchor or one part of a necklace?

Or, in fact, one part of a noose?

I refuse to fall through that trap door, unless I'm taking in the dirtier sections of W. S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Then I'll do so with a grin, a gin, and a shiver. So, what to say instead. First, I've been an unabashed fan of Dexter Sinister for years. As someone involved in publishing, it seems that the process and potential of a book, even if just a cheap paperback, is misunderstood and/or overlooked by most people who make them. Dexter Sinister, I feel, always understands the potential of publication. When I asked them to do the show, I'll admit, I expected the project would have more to do with publication or distribution. That said, I've no regrets. The project, as is, is a very smart look at typography, at the relationship between thought and process, what is plastic and both transfixing and unexplainable about formal inventiveness, and of course the weird, pernicious acceptance expected toward what we read in museum didactics. And just what that word, didactic, can mean. Has anyone else noticed that the three works on display in the demonstration room of The Plastic Arts get scant attention? I thought so.

I thought that Dexter Sinister was more about the matrix of meta-data, so, like in a library, they functioned as the card catalog, where each record is information describing the information source itself. But after viewing several of their publications from Anthony Elms’ personal library, I’m coming around to the idea that their practice is as much about design and layout, essentially communication, as it is about process, distribution or the actual content of the text they’re printing. In that sense, even despite our convergences, derailments and our solitary musings, the preceding text does a good job of illustrating all that.

And on September 30 at 5 pm at Gallery 400, there will be another opportunity to see all of it put into practice when Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt give separate lectures, one following the next, about what Dexter Sinister is and does. So, indeed,  “practice always obliges the sentence to end.”


-Thea Liberty Nichols, ArtSlant Staff Writer with Anthony Elms, Assistant Director of Gallery 400

(ArtSlant would like to thank Anthony Elms for his time and participation in this essay.)

Posted by Thea Liberty Nichols on 9/20/10

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