In this conversation, co-editor Mariana Valencia asks artist Strauss Bourque LaFrance, What do you read and why? Strauss speaks about the books that inspire his work, how many books he reads at a once and he lends advice about books that are worth keeping and whether a book should be judged by its cover. Strauss' art work arrests the eye with clever arrangements that place nostalgic references in present tense. A stoic laminate fireplace holds time still in room; boldly painted and crayoned wooden posts are joined to assemble a beautiful mass or perhaps a piece of a deck to a technicolor lake house. His work steers between object, image, painting and abstractions that are in his words, “mystically related to the body”. In this conversation Strauss conveys the role reading takes in his practice and how the written word and the materiality of books, magazines and printed matter have long influenced his work.
--Mariana Valencia, co-editor
Mariana Valencia: Hi Strauss, what have you been reading?
Strauss Bourque LaFrance: Hi, I have a little stack in front of me of the recent books I've read, or am currently reading. They sort of span topics, and book genres. The one I'm currently reading is called A Little Life, it's by a woman called Hanya Yanigahara. It's a novel, it's the first novel that I've read in a really really long time. I just read The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe, which is a really short book probably from the 1970s, all about painting. I also started looking through Who You, I See which is a book my friend Robin Cameron made, she made it a few years ago, it's this beautiful book that she wrote and designed and each page has an anonymous story about a different artist that she knows and she only identifies each artist by a letter that may or may not correspond with their actual name. And then there's also some beautiful sort of cyanotype collage paintings inside.
Mariana: So these are all pretty distinct, pretty different from each other, they’re not three whole novels.
Strauss: I typically read... I try to read a couple things at once. I usually have a book that's my immediate subway read that I'm trying to get through. And then there's the book that maybe I'm looking for inspiration from, and maybe don't read the whole thing and rather flip through it, or read in parts.
Mariana: Is there one in particular of these three that is that book for you?
Strauss: Yeah, the Robin Cameron book is a great book to sort of pick up and read about a certain person she's describing, put it away, reopen it to a different page. It's not linear in any way and it's not something that I wanna read (Mariana: front to back?) front to back, yeah. I also try to keep a coffee table book that's in rotation with the other books I read. I think they offer something different visually but also content-wise, they’re sort of more direct in their topics and I don't carry them with me but I always have a couple coffee table books back home that I'm focusing on.
Mariana: Yeah, I've seen a lot of those Strauss, you have a very large collection, larger than mine. It’s obvious that there's a leafing-through component that’s part of your research. It makes sense for them to be part of your research, the references, the compositions, your art highly depends on compositions, highly, in a way that's unique to other compositions and I think that something about a coffee table book and the set-image is a really big instigator of your surmising. Ideas of decomposing something that's really put together, and deconstructing it, to arrange it into a new set of shapes. Or taking something that’s a very strict image and recreating it with another set of items as reference. That's a huge part of your practice, it makes sense to me why you would have those books.
Strauss: Yeah, I think that's what's interesting to me about talking about what you're reading because it makes you wonder and it makes you think about how you're using the book, because there are so many different ways to use a book. And coffee table books specifically provide...(Strauss picks up and drops a book on the table) coffee table books provide text for understanding a certain subject or handful of subjects but it's also the design of the book that becomes this really important part of the experience of looking at it and that part is what's so inspirational about books like that and I think that's why people like to look at them so much. You start to see the book as an object as a collection of images that can inform your work or your project or whatever you're doing. But I find that I sometimes look for books, for non-coffee table books that have the same kind of sort of sculptural presence.
Mariana: Do you find that sculptural presence in something more poetic, or is it more like a series of essays in a book?
Strauss: Yeah, or artist-made books, or anything sort of printed matter, for sure. I hate to read a book that I don't like the cover of or the design of....but that wouldn't stop me (laughter)
Mariana: I really think that, it's really true, I identify with that as well and it's that thing, it's the judging a book by its cover problem; I really live by that.
Strauss: Yeah, you absolutely should and wine.
Mariana: Okay, so you should judge a book by it's cover! And wine! I think the book view is that there could be editions of books that completely ruin the way that the book has looked, completely ruined. I see new editions of Penguin classic novels, or Lorca poems and it’s like, “Ahhhhh! You ruined it because the best one was the 70's cover!” And really it’s about which edition you attached to first. There are several Toni Morrison books on my shelf that are from before I was an adult, their marked age is enough for me to want to read them. I say, "Oh, this is from before."
Strauss: Totally, that's why I picked up this Tom Wolfe book because the cover is this ridiculous 70's cover with these tiny cutouts of Tom Wolfe spread across the cover, around the text it says "The Painted Word" and...
Mariana: With an imaged man....
Strauss: Totally, and he's really funny and he's sort of a dandy and he's really sarcastic and kind of campy and when you read a book like this, that's such a classic old-school book on modern art, it must be an old copy of the book rather than a new version of it. There's something about it being from the original time period that makes it (Mariana: Yeah, from the time, yeah) it sort of makes it more special and brings me closer to the specific time that the author's talking about.
Mariana: Yeah, It’s the first window into the book, the cover, because then the rest is whatever you absorb from it and then you create new images of what the words mean, but the cover of a book is the thing that also moves me into a book. With A Little Life, though, it's more about the title.
Strauss: Totally, well I was mentioning...
Mariana: I've started A Little Life recently, so I have a little of a background to your current reading…
Strauss: And I just heard a little background about the cover of that book, she was interviewed on NPR and typically apparently when you write a novel, you aren't often allowed to choose the picture, I guess the publisher chooses the picture for the cover or the cover design, and Hanya really really wanted to use this image, this Peter Hujar photograph for the cover and after hearing her describe why she wanted it for the cover it sort of made sense why it couldn't be anything else. The image perfectly captures one of the lead characters of the book, emotionally. This, intense back and forth of being in pain and being overjoyed or something. And the picture is actually of some guy having an orgasm.
Mariana: Oh, (Strauss: Mmhmm) I feel similar that the image suits the character. But I don't know if from the cover of this book, that I would've bought it based on the cover.
Strauss: Yeah, well it's your typical sort of suburban-style really big-looking soft-back novel.
Mariana: Yeah, it seems like it's gonna take a long time to read (Strauss laughs) and perhaps that means that I would have it for a while which then means that I have to look at it for longer... I don't think this is a criticism of the front cover, but I think that in my aesthetic alignment to books that….this book wouldn't necessarily fit my standard. Except for the title, A Little Life, which I love.
Strauss: I totally don't keep very many novels, because I feel like the chance of me reading them more than once is so rare.
Mariana: Where do you put them? What do you do with them?
Strauss: I give them away.
Mariana: I should do that. I definitely don't do that. (Strauss: Or I like sharing them with friends) I might read them again though...There are a couple that I reread, seasonally.
Strauss: Yeah, those are the ones to keep, but then the ones that don't seem like they would travel with you over the years, you can usually weed those out.
Mariana: I'm going to take that advice, because I don't know what to do with books sometimes. They’re not like clothes. I can make a pile of giveaway clothes in two seconds. I really like books, and their experience...(Strauss: Well, books are more...alive) Well they've made me feel alive, so yeah, they have that capacity so they are alive. They're the only thing that I feel is worthy of moving along with my plants. (Strauss: Yeah, totally, they're the only objects you really need) and maybe...my crystals. (Strauss: Same. They're all in the same family.[Laughter] You don't really need any of your dishes...) The plants, the books, and something to wear are the main things to keep for me. (Strauss: Totally) What else?...God...I sold my CDs, some of them, some are in their 90s case still.
Strauss: You still have CDs?
Mariana: I still have CDs, I don't know why but I should get rid of them. They're in those binders from the 90s (Strauss: Yeah, Caselogic) I have about 300, obviously I was a member of Columbia House.
Strauss: Yeah, I was too. But why don't you digitize them?
Mariana: Well I did half of them but these are the ones I haven't yet, but really, when am I going to do it? They’re something I really don't need to keep, that and costumes for dances, or old makeup. “I'm never gonna wear that lipstick again, it's from prom!” (Strauss: Oh my god) I'm making myself sound like more of a hoarder than I actually am. I've been reading A Little Life too and I read similarly to you, several books at a time. I have to admit it's been a long time, about a year and a half since I've finished a novel that I've started. I think I'm actually going to finish this one.
Strauss: Well, you have to finish it's one of those things.
Mariana: Well it's a page turner. (Strauss: Yeah) I've been reading is A House Of My Own by Sandra Cisneros, about her career, a collection of memoirs through her work about residencies she’s had in Greece and the Southwest... she writes these memoirs from when she was in her 20s and so she describes herself as being extra extra foolish during those years, where she would eat baguette and drink wine and call it a meal for a day. It's nice to hear those kinds of things that we fault ourselves for, it's like "God, I was so crazy then".
Strauss: Totally, I love reading biographies and autobiographies of artists. I read Ann Truett's Day Book and it's one of those. You have a lot of those moments where, there's something really comforting when you hear another artist who's had a career that you admire and respect and you're so interested in, for them to expose, their vulnerabilities within their careers and their insecurities, and their troubles...
Mariana: And that they have heartbreak and...
Strauss: Of course they do but it's so funny especially when you're a creative person and you're around so many creative people, and everyone's trajectory is different and you can't help but always think about your practice in relation to other people’s and your success in relation to other people's and it's good to read about other artist's lives and how they've gotten to where they are and how it's not always how you perceive it to be, that success and...
Mariana: Well, it's interesting to read about them as people, because, I don't know them, I don't have coffee with them. I have coffee with my friends, who happen to be artists, getting to know people whose art I knew first through probably an image, is rad. Reading about them really makes the work connected to the body that it comes from. A person with experiences that aren't just magically slapped onto a successful path, it took a conversation or two, it took a couple times of not getting anything out of many conversations, or it took years of doing things one way until they did it a different way. I didn't finish that Andy Warhol book that I can't even remember...
Strauss: Oh, Holy Terror?
Mariana: Yeah (Strauss: Yeah) that one was good.
Strauss: Totally, I thought that was a really good retelling. There's so many books about Andy Warhol that I sort of skirted around or started and never finished but that was one of the ones that was a page turner for sure.
Mariana: Yeah, and his voice is so lovely, I can hear his personality, what was the guy’s name? (Strauss: Bob Colacello) Bob! Yeah he really wrote his little sass tone.
Strauss: Yeah, he is a beautiful writer, and so smart.
Mariana: Yeah. Do you read the paper?
Strauss: I don't read a physical newspaper. But I read a newsfeed that is an app on my phone. (Laughter)
Mariana: What's it called I didn't know there was...
Strauss: It's just the Newsstand. I think everyone's phone has it. (Mariana: Oh!) But it sort of determines, it's not an algorithm but I chose at some point the publications that I'm interested in.
Mariana: Oh, that's how that works?
Strauss: Yeah, so in the morning, I sort of just scan and it gives me a handful of articles from the different publications that I would tend to read. Sometimes I just read a headline and sometimes I'll actually go into the stories. In the studio I have NPR on so much that I feel like sometimes I hear too much news or something. That's why I don't read the paper as much, but I do have this weird romantic idea that one day I'm going to start getting the Sunday Times, physically, and I'm gonna read it up.
Mariana: It happens and it's going to come, if you choose to. I just started getting that.
Strauss: But I won't get it until I have a backyard.
Mariana: Okay, so...so first it's a matter of real estate. That makes sense.
Strauss: Well, I'm not sure if I would ever even receive it if I ordered it at my apartment.
Mariana: Well, that's real, because even at my apartment, I don't know where it goes sometimes, and I only get The Weekender. It takes me a week to read, I didn't even know what the Newsstand was for on the phone, so you're saying if I add other publications to it, it would be like a salad... with, sauce.
Strauss: Yeah, exactly. It's like The Atlantic, The Observer, The Wall Street Journal, The Onion, it has everything. (Mariana: Oh, okay) You can even get Vogue, Cosmo.
Mariana: I would love me a Bazaar. I used to read that a lot when I was a kid, actually I got most print in my face when I was a tween. I had Bazaar, probably things my mom was like, “Why are you… so different?”
Strauss: Yeah, I grew up in a magazine house for sure.
Mariana: Yeah, it's very normal for me to have stacks of magazines, I would get Bazaar, W Magazine, why was I getting W? I memorized designer names probably but it's not like I bought designer fashion.
Strauss: That's why magazines are great, it's like fantasy.
Mariana: Yeah, and I know so much about fashion because of them and it must have been the images, the editorials that really drew me in or "On the Street" or "This Month's Trend" those pages, it put, like you said, the fantasy of the editorial into the actual streetwear and it gives a connection to this really fancy world. Somehow I knew what to pay attention to, how to figure out what my eye was, what to look out for in the world: Fashion. Still do.
Strauss: Yeah, totally, same. We used to get a ton of magazines and my grandmother got so many too we would get all of her old ones. But there used to be a stack of Vanity Fairs on the back of the toilet in the bathroom closest to my bedroom and still to this day I think about that cover with Demi Moore where she is pregnant and naked and...(Mariana: With Rumer [Willis]) there are certain images even from magazines which are so fleeting that just stuck with me, just because the fantasy of then, the time you look at them. I keep certain magazines too, for reference, when they're special or have some kind of articles that I want to hold onto, I like keeping a little stack of magazines to remember.
Mariana: That's good. I guess I don't have that practice. I guess before I would throw out a novel I would throw out a magazine, excuse me, repurpose, not throw away. Did the cutting up of images from magazines enter your art then? Or did it happen later, was finding these images...
Strauss: No, yeah - always, collage was one of the home projects, collage and Sculpey, that's what we did when we were bored and I've been cutting up books ever since.
Mariana: “We”, as in you and the other kid? Your parents?
Strauss: Yeah, me and my brother, or me and my mom, I guess that's another part of my book world is that some of the books that I buy are specifically for destroying or repurposing. Sometimes they're of content that I am actually interested in and would probably read but for some reason, at the time I might make better use of it as an object to cut up and to use in a piece or something. That's also something that I've done with books that I get rid of, is to just use them in the studio.
Mariana: Do you read on the train? Do you take the train?
Strauss: Yeah, I do take the train when I have to and I don't have time to walk somewhere and I always carry something to read on me.
Mariana: When you don't carry something to read on you do you ever listen to a book? I've never heard a book on tape.
Strauss: No, I haven't either, I actually don't think that would work for me, neither would a tablet for reading. I have trouble reading on a screen, I think a lot of people feel that way. I need a physical book in my hand, I need a paper, and I think I need that for my attention span too, I like to hold the object and to follow the words, it helps to absorb it and if I'm in the car I can imagine a book on tape working, because I listen to a lot of podcasts in the car, but typically I'm not that interested in hearing a book on a tape.
Mariana: Yes, I like moving through the pages of a book as part of the reading process, I think that's huge and getting so close to the end.
Strauss: Well there is something about that! Where we have so little time to do anything, to find time to be able to read a book, especially one like A Little Life that's 800 pages long, it's really overwhelming to even think that I have time to do that, but when it's a good book it not only goes fast, there is that sense of accomplishment that you're getting something from this, that you can see the progress you've made as you go through.
Mariana: Totally, and it gets older. Since I've started reading A Little Life, I’ve decided to read it before I grab my phone in the morning before I do the screen time of looking on Instagram, which is another kind of reading. It’s image-deciphering, liking, not liking, going on and I wonder, if you are having a good time reading something, does it take time away from another way of distraction, or...
Strauss: Yeah, I think that it does. I'm not as disciplined as I would like to be in that way that you were just describing where my book is the first thing I reach for, even though this particular book I'm super into and I'm really excited to get to the end of it, I make time for the sort of digital reading I do, whether it's visual like Instagram or it's more reading in Newsstand, or whatever, a lot of the time the books that I'm reading end up being for the subway. But I do think about that a lot every time I check Instagram and end up getting on it and getting into one of those k-holes where you can't stop until you get to the last place you looked, the amount of time that that takes is just, it's actually really kind of crazy, and you know, if I were to replace that with pages in a book every time, it would surely be more satisfying, I think.
Mariana: Yeah, I think there's a lot of guilt, for me, in looking on "instant media" which is my old person way of calling all of social media. The end of my instant media moment is so ridden with guilt, while I'm doing it I'm so satisfied though. Sometimes I check the time and all of a sudden I'm on instant media, which is why I got a watch, because I didn't want to keep checking my phone every time I had to check the time. I have guilt about it, maybe it has to do with when I came of age, when print was still relevant, I didn't really encounter the information from the World Wide Web until college. That's so different for kids now, they're looking at the internet for the source of information, whereas we weren't allowed to use the internet for a source. When I was first writing papers, it was like, "Nope, you must find it first in the encyclopedia" and then in books, in print, researching, the legwork of research has completely been cut. Perhaps because I was told that it was lazy to look at the internet then, maybe that's why I'm still like "Oh my God, I'm so guilty for looking at the internet at all!”
Strauss: Well I feel like you have to question any platform, any social media or device that you're using, I think that you have to question anything that you’re using that much. Something that takes up time in your day. I think that anything that you're willing to spend that kind of time with, like the way we are with Instagram, and the time it takes to go through your feed, I think you have to question that information source. It's so prevalent, I always think about if you can trust it or not. Instagram specifically has this amazing way of enlarging a community and connecting different communities but it stops somewhere along the way because I think it is so just visually-based, it ultimately becomes a sort of narcissistic place for everyone, when it could maybe have a potential besides that. I know I've definitely met a lot of people just from having it which I think is interesting and I think sometimes you connect with the people you follow who you don't already know and sometimes you don't. You know, sometimes I learn from the images I see, sometimes I want to reference certain things I see and, yeah, some days I want to give it up and some days I think about how important it actually is or could be. But I'm constantly questioning it, and what it's doing to me. (Laughter)
Mariana: Yeah, am I being fed anything?
Strauss: Well yeah, I kind of feel like it's, it's something I would talk to a therapist about for sure.
Mariana: I talk about my books with my therapist.
Strauss: A Little Life is a book that I would totally talk about if I had a therapist, I have visceral reactions to the writing in this way that I haven't had, God I don't know the last time I felt that. It might have been in the days of reading Autobiography of Red (Mariana: Anne Carson?) (Laughter)
Mariana: That was the one I was going to say! That is a seminal book in our history, amongst our group of friends, Anne Carson’s, Autobiography of Red...
Strauss: I think we'd all still put it on our top whatever lists.
Mariana: That's a book I reread seasonally.
Strauss: Yeah totally, I would never get rid of that book it's like a bible.
Mariana: It is like a bible. And many of her other books became so as well. I wouldn't get rid of my Joan Didion books either, there are certain books I wouldn't get rid of. There are huge parts of A Little Life where I’m amazed that these men live a life together, they live in a shit apartment and they do holidays together and it’s a really familiar group. It's not the Instagram expanded community, it's the base.
Strauss: A familiar community but it's a rare community, that's a reason why I'm really into this book is because I feel like it's interesting for me as a queer man. But the book is all about these very very nuanced and very sensitive male relationships that you never read about never ever ever, and I think it sort of reminds me of a show that was on HBO briefly, called Looking which was about a group of gay friends, and it was a very specific more tender depiction of a group of gay men rather than raucous, overly-sexualized, etc.
Mariana: Is that based in San Francisco?
Strauss: Yeah, and A Little Life does a similar thing, where sexuality doesn't come up all that often in the book, but it's sort of implied that these boys all love each other whether any of them are gay or not. And it just sort of really really looks at how male relationships operate, when sexuality actually isn't at the forefront of it, these are all raw emotional men who care about each other, which is just a really rare depiction.
Mariana: It is rare, and it's more easily found in a group of young women or girls...like sisterhood, is different from brotherhood...
Strauss: I think that this is different from brotherhood as well because it immediately made me think of the term "bromance" and how that is used these days and how overused it is and how lame it is and it's one of those terms that's basically created so that a certain type of person can feel comfortable being a certain way with someone. I think it's really unnecessary, if you love another man, it’s because he's your best friend, that's why you love him, and it seems pretty reasonable.
Mariana: That seems like enough of a statement, that two men can care for each other.
Strauss: It happened with metrosexual too.
Mariana: Yeah, that was the other term I was just about to say.
Strauss: And that's why this book it seems to delete all the work that's been done there, under the idea of bromance or metrosexualism, it feels so stripped of that in a really really nice way. Where it's just fluid, it's so fluid.
Mariana: Right, it starts at why wouldn't this be true. This is how these young men relate and care for each other and live together and this is their life together.
Strauss: Yeah! And what if more men in the world could actually feel comfortable projecting vulnerability, sensitivity, (Mariana: care) care, and tenderness. That's the problem with the world, really, you know? I mean, it's dramatic to say, but it's sort of like...
Mariana: No, but it is, it's expected for male bodies to be void of that. It's a weakness to show that you have those qualities and if it's not a weakness then you “must be gay”... We live in New York and there are a lot of printed images, of words, anything from a misspelled sign on a laundromat window to smart advertising on the subway. How do those words or images sit with you in your life as content?
Strauss: Yeah, because we're always reading...
Mariana: I'm always creating language from someone else's mistake, or someone else's really smart thing it's all...
Strauss: Paying attention in New York is such an important thing and I'm constantly aware of the surfaces and the signs and the imagery around me, because, even though you'd think with so much of it you'd start to ignore it, but I feel like here I pay really close attention to it because I need to. There's some kind of need I have to find nuance in the scape of New York that's so busy and crazy. I also am obsessed with graphic design so I really like to see how that's used publicly and how it's used on different kinds of surfaces or walls or areas or is it wheat pasted or is it a billboard or is it the little "Back in five" sign, I feel this need to capture that and hold it as a reference.
Mariana: Do you have any other top books?
Strauss: I've been reading a lot from a big stack of Art Forums from the 60s, the late 60s/early 70s and I've been...
Mariana: Were they so skinny?
Strauss: They're very skinny and they're smaller but they're still square format, and they're such treasures.
Mariana: Where do you get them?
Strauss: I got them in a thrift store. The 60s and 70s set the tone for art in such an intense way and all the work that's throughout these Art Forums is the work that's still so heavily referenced, and it's all the heavy hitters that really made mid-century abstraction and minimalism and all that, it's been really fun to go back and read what it was like back then and then also imagery-wise, a lot of it's in black and white, and the ads, the ads are such a good part of Art Forum in the older issues. It was also a really great time in graphic design and everything was minimal and it's before people named shows conceptual names...
Mariana: Oh, so it's just the artist
Strauss: Yeah, so it's the artist's name and the gallery and it's just all about this simple graphic design where almost every ad looks like a business card.
Mariana: Oh, I love that.
Strauss: Me too, it's so inspiring.
Mariana: That's great, a recent thing I've read, that was inspiring, because it's meta, is the letter by Yvonne Rainer, that speaks to her experience of New York as being so different from the market and professionalization of dance and art at-large today. I keep this in my mind, the simplicity of artists engaging with their work. They had enough space for bodies here then, and because they all had a room, they got to make work in it.
Strauss: Well, and now there's so many destinations, you go to the place or the thing so specifically and everything's tight and determined.
Mariana: And codified, all the rooms have styles. Rooms meaning, anything from theater house to galleries, (Strauss: rooms) yeah, rooms now have a style because they became a thing, a time, an art space. Making dances or choreography or time-based work is about putting action out, just being active.
Strauss: Oh yeah, yeah that's the great part about performance and dance is that it can't exist the same without the audience. It's a medium that still involves the presence of other bodies to make it happen.
Mariana: Thank you!
Strauss: Thank you.
Mariana: Bye New York.
Strauss: Think we talked about books enough?
Images: courtesy of Rachel Uffner Gallery and Strauss Bourque LaFrance
Books, Mariana Valencia, Strauss Bourque LaFrance