Jonathan Monk likes to stockpile art books. He did this (kind of jokingly) with Ed Ruscha’s Crackers (1969) becoming perhaps the world’s largest collector (owning thirty-three copies) of Ruscha’s limited-edition book-work. Monk’s inventory of Crackers also became artistic material, leading for instance to the creation of his eponymous video, Crackers (2013) – a succession of filmed images of the front covers of all his copies of Crackers – shown in differing states of wear and tear. In Knowledge, (2017) Monk’s bibliophilia has followed a different direction. Here, he has taken twelve binder folders from a series called Discovering Art published in England in the early 1960s encasing each of them in transparent plexiglass boxes. Monk has removed from these binder folders their epistolary contents; the thin magazines were issued weekly to illustrate different centuries in the history of art. Monk’s copies of Discovering Art come from his mother’s home in Leicester, England. It was through the magazines contained inside their binders that Monk first saw images of art as a child when exploring his parents’ library. Monk’s Knowledge (2017) paradoxically, denies us access to the pages or knowledge inside these empty frames. Yet like Crackers (2013) Monk’s encased frames also humorously remind us of the importance of books as designed artefacts that sit on shelves and are to be looked at or in Lawrence Weiner’s well-known statement: books do furnish a room; you can tell a book by its cover. Perhaps more importantly, the empty frames of Monk’s work also remind us nostalgically (through recollection of his own childhood) of the visual and haptic experiences that we have as children of experiencing artworks via their analogue reproduction in books (this childhood experience has no doubt declined in the age of the internet and digital images). It was while holding and scrolling through the pages of E.H. Gombrich’s classic, The Story of Art (1950) and gazing at its beautifully illustrated images that my passion for and ‘knowledge’ of art was ignited. While Gombrich’s art historical narrative may seem quaintly absurd today much like the narrative in Discovering Art does it really matter as it was within this museum without walls that I first discovered art? The reproduction of artworks generally precedes our experience of the original; in many instances the copy as seen in art books will be the only experience we have of the actual artwork, the ‘original’ remaining forever inaccessible to us. The dialectic between original artwork and photographic copy is often cast (à la Walter Benjamin) in negative or redemptive terms posed as the impact of the reproduction on the original. Yet this dialectic neglects the type of equivalence that can exist between originals and copies, an equivalence that I think Jonathan Monk’s work often returns us to. Looking at art has clearly informed Monk’s own artistic practice; just as has collecting art in the form of originals (often acquired through acts of exchange with other artists), limited editions, books, documents, postcards and ephemera. If for Monk, the circulation of art through these different media is a source for play and visual cross-reference, it is also one in which differences in value (aesthetic, symbolic, economic etc.) between images and media are constantly eroding and collapsing.
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