by Trinie Dalton
In 2005, designer and typographer Lisa Wagner, my collaborator on Dear New Girl or Whatever Your Name Is (McSweeney’s), introduced me to issue number four of Dan Nadel’s dream-zine, The Ganzfeld. With that, I felt an instant print rapport with PictureBox, although I hadn’t met Dan yet, and ordered up all their new releases. Likely this book order was in lieu of a few meals, as I was in a badly impoverished books-before-bread state back then, but no matter, because when I received that first padded envelope of PictureBox goods—which included Leif Goldberg’s comix anthology Free Radicals, and Paper Rad’s B.J. and da Dogs, both germinated within Providence, Rhode Island’s post–Fort Thunder collectives—I became ever more justified in my book fetish. In fact, I attribute the maturation of my handmade-book fetish to PictureBox. I came to learn from Dan how to transform a rough-hewn, drawn-and-cut book-thing into a slick, commercially designed book-object that was just as physically engaging as any jerry-rigged charmer—if not more physically engaging, due to the extra processing. From Dan—innovating publisher extraordinaire—I learned that handmade aesthetics and sleek graphic design are far from mutually exclusive, that in fact they can be bedfellows, and that the war between paper and digital is no war at all.
Well, this is a theoretical design stance, I suppose, not a fact minding current profitability in book business, as one might glean from the recent shuttering of PictureBox’s windows—but in bookmaking, brilliant concept and design innovation is what matters to me, and PictureBox was the vanguard for a good 10-year run. It elevated comics and D.I.Y. projects into objects of high-design beauty, often through collaborations between zinesters, cartoonists, musicians, animators, and graphic designers eager for revolutionary assignments; or through showcasing artists who prove those camps are not mutually exclusive, like Ben Jones of Paper Rad (Pig Tales, B.J. and da Dogs, Men’s Group: The Video, New Painting and Drawing). PictureBox proved to me that not everything related to radical book design happened pre-1980, and that Nadel was out to chronicle its renaissance.
Fan mail correspondences between admirers might be an activity only remembered or perpetuated by dinosaurs, but I am a dogmatic, mix-cassette-tape-era woman who still snail mails, and who has a history of publishing critical reviews of artworks I love, with fan mail-like enthusiasm and intention. Thus, I took a two-pronged approach to paying tribute to Dan Nadel upon discovering PictureBox. In 2005, I published a roundup review of PictureBox’s premiere and upcoming releases, following on the heels of The Ganzfeld 4: Art History? Besides all the praise I bestowed upon the Goldberg and Paper Rad books abovementioned, I wrote about the publishing endeavor’s roots in The Ganzfeld.*
A couple years later, I queried Nadel about submitting a book proposal, which astonishingly he responded to. I mailed this long-shot off—something about a compendium of my zines—and even more astonishingly, he invited me for a visit. I credit-card-charged a ticket to New York, got off at the wrong train station in Gowanus, and commenced a pilgrimage along the awful, polluted river and nasty, dirty-snow riddled streets while toting two heavy Oaxacan baskets full of collages and printed ephemera, as well as some books on possible design options. That trek to the newly inaugurated PictureBox office and storefront was in itself a rite of passage that helped me understand its role as an oasis in a barren industrial wasteland, both literally and metaphorically (sorry, Gowanus).
Stepping into the colorful, fun, and immaculate storefront and office was like entering our collective dream. I walked out of there with a plan to make my book Mythtym, a Tux Dog T-shirt, and a feeling that the world was not yet totally ruined. Months later, when I moved to New York, PictureBox was my primary event zone. I made many good friends there, all the while collaborating on Mythtym with genius designer James Goggin (Practise UK), and Will Luckman, who helped me project manage all the scanning, permissions, and P.R. involved in wrangling 50 book contributors. What independent publisher would do that now? No one! Let me also publically note that Mythtym wasn’t exactly a cash cow, and I hope it didn’t directly contribute to PictureBox’s close; deep down that’s a joke, of course. Point being: Nadel, creative businessman, found some profitable ventures (not mine) in order to support risks on experiments, like any well-run project space or publisher who wants to be a part of new culture.
There is nobody left in America like PictureBox! I present that comment not as sheer pessimism or old-fogeyness, but as a challenge to young designers and publishers who want to occupy a room that now feels empty. Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, Kramer’s Ergot, and those comics folks are awesome but don’t stretch cross-discipline like Picturebox did. Artist-run spaces that publish innovative printed matter, like Public Fiction, Capricious, Ooga Booga, and many others, are wonderful too, but they don’t publish large-scale, glossy art monographs as did PictureBox. Phaidon, Rizzoli, JPR|Ringier, George Miller, and so many other publishers of exquisite art books are amazing, but they don’t deal in D.I.Y. subcultural arenas or publish cheapy newsprint editions beside their coffee table books. Siglio Press comes close, and I am ever grateful for Lisa Pearson’s unique publishing endeavor—though her aesthetic territory varies greatly from Nadel’s, as she provides a much-needed focus on women artists who move between art and text. PictureBox carved space for punk and art collective subcultures, music industry, and avant-garde 1960 –1980s graphic design books in the luxurious art catalog market, presenting many memorable artists’ exhibition catalogues in the mix (Xylor Jane; Gore,by Black Dice; Wipe That Clock Off Your Face,by Brian Belott; Mail Order Monsters; Heads 44,by Mat Brinkman; The Magnificent Excess of Snoop Dogg, by Katherine Bernhart; Return of the Repressed, by Destroy All Monsters).
Perhaps most importantly, PictureBox always trained its sharp eye on cutting-edge comedy. All of PictureBox’s editorial efforts established a jocular community between goofy-but-serious creative types in various fields who might not have had opportunities to meet, much less collaborate; I myself stand witness here as a person whose life PictureBox changed for the better. The good part is, while Picturebox releases may be halted, the books are still available through its long-time distributor and supporter D.A.P. Order these books while you can, for they will all surely be collector’s items in the future, or at least stowaways in buried time capsules for robots to unearth and marvel over.
Some PictureBox Favorites:
1. Conceptual Art, Peter Saul
2. Powr Mastrs, C.F.
3. Tuff Stuff, Joe Bradley
4. Maggots, Brian Chippendale
5. Pompeii, Frank Santoro
6. Some Kinda Vocation, Cheryl Dunn
7. Me A Mound, Trenton Doyle Hancock
8. Faded Igloo, Jim Drain
9. Sun Ra + Ayé Aton: Space, Interiors and Exteriors, 1972, John Corbett
10. The Ganzfeld 7
* Visit thefanzine.com/put-your-3-d-glasses-on-and-drop-acid-now-2/ to read the original article.
TRINIE DALTON has published six books, most recently Baby Geisha (Two Dollar Radio). She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Art Center, and USC. She has forthcoming fiction and poetry in the Santa Monica Review, the Austin Review, G.A.G. (Capricious Publishing), and the Milan Review; her art writing is forthcoming in books about David Altmejd (Rizzoli), Laura Owens (Rizzoli), Dorothy Iannone (Siglio), Dorothy Iannone’s Retrospective (Berlinische Galerie/Migros Museum), and Abstraction in Contemporary Video Art (UC Press). Visit her at sweettomb.com.