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NBCC Featured Review:  Emily Colette Wilkinson on Leanne Shapton

By Eric Banks

Critical Mass regularly features an exemplary review by a National Book Critics Circle member critic. Here, from VQR, Emily Colette Wilkinson reviews Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry

In the realm of art the question of repurposing has always been contentious. The issue was perhaps first raised early in the twentieth century by Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” the ordinary manufactured goods that Duchamp signed, titled, sometimes slightly modified, and then offered to the world as works of art. The spirit in which he made these offerings is generally assumed to be one of contempt—contempt for the increasing institutionalization of art through the museum and contempt for the larger forces of commodity capitalism infiltrating the world of art as well. Initially, the art world responded in kind to Duchamp: the most famous of his readymades, La Fontaine, a urinal he signed “R. Mutt” and entered in the 1917 Society for Independent Artists exhibit, was not displayed by the show’s organizers, who did not think that the piece qualified as art.

The art world has long come around to Duchamp, but the question of whether a signed urinal is art is still one that confronts the viewer of an artist-authorized replica of La Fontaine (the original was accidentally taken for trash and thrown away). And perhaps more provocative than any of the readymades themselves is the idea behind them, the idea that a commonplace object can ascend to “the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist,” as Andre Breton put it. While Duchamp and his allies put this idea forward ironically, and while it has given rise to conceptual art (much of which can seem very silly), there might be something to be said for taking the idea seriously. The earnest version of the theory of the readymade might look something like this: objects of aesthetic and intellectual value are all around you; if you look at commonplace material things in the right way, they might show you something transcendent.

Consider Ernest Hemingway’s notable (and perhaps apocryphal) six-word short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Hemingway’s story resembles the readymade in that it takes an everyday non-literary genre, the classified ad, and offers it as literature. Hemingway suggests that the mundane can do what art does if the reader is willing to contemplate it as art. It can tell a story of loss, lost hope, and the desire to forget, and tell it with enviable understatedness. While “For sale” proves that not-so-literary genres can serve the grander ends of art, it also suggests that the stories of our immaterial lives—our loves, our disappointments—are written in the objects we collect, cherish, destroy, and dispose of.

The intuitions of Hemingway’s story and, to a lesser degree, Duchamp’s readymades are at work in Leanne Shapton’s curious and arresting new book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. Shapton’s mock auction catalogue, like Hemingway’s ad qua short story, offers a practical genre repurposed to serve the ends of art. Important Artifacts tells the story of the romance and break up of Lenore Doolan, a pretty, young food columnist for the New York Times, and Harold Morris, a jet-setting older photographer, and it tells this story through the material flotsam and jetsam of any relationship: snapshots, letters, clothes, knickknacks, novels, mix CDs, and other more random detritus (half a turkey wishbone, a collection of hotel key cards). The most obvious pleasure of this innovative approach to fiction is that it offers you the naughty thrill of looking through other people’s stuff. It is no accident that among the couple’s books is Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur. Important Artifacts makes explicit the voyeurism that is always some part of the pleasure of fiction. In order to read the book, you must look through the characters’ toilet bags and underwear—though it feels a little less illicit when these objects are described in the serious, pseudo-scientific prose of the auction catalogue:

LOT 1005
A photograph of Morris and Doolan
A photograph of Morris and Doolan at the Subramanian-Vitale Halloween party. Morris is dressed as Harry Houdini and Doolan as Lizzie Borden. First known photograph of the couple together. Photographer unknown. Small tack holes in corners. 4×6 in. $25-30

The photograph itself tells a more subtle story about the beginnings of a relationship. It captures beautifully the beginning of mutual interest—a careful, slightly awkward conversation in which both parties are interested and anxious to be found interesting, but are also restrained by nervousness. Lenore, as Lizzie Borden, wears a bloody blouse with an axe in her lap, and Hal, as Houdini, has his wrists bound in heavy chains. As we discover, these are telling costumes: Hal turns out to be something of an escape artist and Lenore is capable of dangerous rage (though her victims are objects and not people).

While Shapton’s imitation of the conventional auction catalogue’s serious and meticulous lot descriptions is in one sense a joke at the expense of celebrity auction catalogues (Sotheby’s for the estate of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Julien’s catalogue of Michael Jackson’s memorabilia), it also suggests that each item for sale might be taken seriously as a piece of evidence in the case of Doolan and Morris: Who are they? Why did they fall in love? And why did they fall out of it? Faced with the task of solving their case, the reader is also faced again with the question: how much do our possessions reveal about us?

On a sociological level, possessions certainly reveal a fair amount—socioeconomic status, education, tastes, habits—and by this measure, Morris and Doolan’s possessions say quite a bit about them. They are both interested in fashion, favoring a mix of designer clothing (Prada, John Galliano) and vintage (Lenore’s mod cutout bathing suit from the 1960s, Hal’s wool bathing trunks from the 1930s), with Hal a little more into designer clothing and Lenore a little more into vintage.

They also have other habits of high-strung self-conscious metropolitans: Lenore seems perpetually anxious about her weight. Among the lots that comprise the book are innumerable daily intake lists in her handwriting (“Lemon bar / tea / coffee / popcorn / avocado / crabcakes / panettone /”). She is also perhaps prone to depression (there’s a bottle of Wellbutrin in her toilet bag). Hal is in psychotherapy and takes notes about his sessions, a few of which make their way into the lots: “afraid of her reality?/ bad temper/ expresses in the way she is able/ try to be interested.” He is devoted to herbal supplements (Ayurvedic Prescriptives Hyper-Acidity tablets; Metagenics Wellness Essentials for Men), and uses expensive eye gel (Jo Malone) and body lotion (Kiehl’s), and he’s also trying to quit smoking (there are several NicoDerm patches in his toilet bag and a note from Lenore indicates that he sometimes had her hide cigarettes from him). We also know that Lenore is Canadian (like Shapton); she likes expensive underwear (Lot 2084 offers a collection of eighteen bras from labels like Burberry and Eres) and wearing stripes (Lot 1069: A group of striped clothing items). She also likes cake—making it, writing about it in her column for the New York Times, “Cakewalk,” and collecting new and vintage cake cookbooks and accessories. Hal is English (his mother writes from London; a shopping list refers to “loo roll” instead of toilet paper). We know that he likes pajamas and Paul Smith socks, and that Lenore liked giving him both. He also likes taking photographic series—refrigerator interiors, interestingly shaped pieces of beef jerky, hotel ceilings, his feet at the end of various hotel bathtubs. And he travels often for work (Prague, Peru, India, Ireland), a fact that comes to seem a metaphor for his elusiveness.

The celebrity auction catalogue has always had a certain relation to biography, so Shapton’s attempt to repurpose the genre to tell a story of two lives and the unraveling of the love they shared makes sense. With the life of a celebrity, however, we know the person whose possessions are on display before we open the catalogue, and we already have some idea of who she was and what she did. Often, we have seen before the objects on display in celebrity auction catalogues—a certain gown of Jackie Kennedy’s, a certain rhinestone-covered suit of Michael Jackson’s. We are not looking to the objects to tell us things about the lives of these people because we already know about their lives. Our pre-existing familiarity with celebrities is what makes catalogues of their possessions interesting, and the possessions on display only tell us what we already know (or think we know) about them in a more textured, archival way.

How much, though, do the possessions of the average uncelebrated citizen tell us about the owner? A minor eighteenth-century genre called the “it story” evolved around the premise that things are often the best witnesses of their owners’ lives. In works like “The Secret History of an Old Shoe” (1734) and “The Adventures of a Watch” (1788), personal effects offered their memoirs: clothing, shillings, corkscrews, and walking sticks spoke in the first person about what they had seen of their owners’ indiscretions and foibles. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes insisted “that it is difficult for a man to have any object in daily use without leaving the impress of his individuality upon it,” but such an impress was visible only to the highly trained observer—one with Holmes’s preternatural deductive skills. Holmes’s uncanny ability to discover a man’s habits and cause of death by looking at his pocket watch is a fiction almost as impossible as the memoir-writing shoe of the it-story. By themselves, without context, objects are mute witnesses of whatever they might have seen. A large collection of old shoes, for example, says nothing without context, but when the collection is housed in the Holocaust Museum, the shoes, by their number and materiality, become a powerful reminder of their owners’ irrevocable absence and the scale of Nazi genocide.

Shapton invokes this idea of the object as witness with an epigraph from Graham Green’s The End of the Affair:

That ashtray stood beside the bed. On the lady’s side.”
“I’ll certainly treasure the memento,” I said.
“If ashtrays could speak, sir.”
“Indeed, yes.”

But Shapton knows that ashtrays cannot speak by themselves. They need context or they need, as in the case of it-stories, an author to act as ventriloquist in order to tell what they know. For those not blessed with Sherlock Holmes’s ability to read the material world, a stranger’s ashtray tells nothing more than that the owner was possibly a smoker. To help the things itemized in her catalogue speak, Shapton litters the lots with notes, postcards, diary-esque jottings, printed e-mails, and letters. Without these scraps of writing, Important Artifacts would say nothing about Lenore and Hal beyond the demographic. These jottings become the clues to the unraveling of their relationship.

Materially, Hal is an adept and generous suitor. He showers Lenore with exquisitely thoughtful and expensive gifts: an antique silver cake server engraved “Bravo Buttertart” (his pet name for Lenore), after her first “Cakewalk” column runs; a vintage 1968 Olivetti portable typewriter; an Hermes watch and beach towel; a case of Chateau Calon-Segur, Saint Estephe, a Hasselblad camera, a vintage Elsa Schiaparelli astrakhan coat (bought at a secondhand shop in Athens whose owner assured him that it had once belonged to Maria Callas), trips to Venice and Ireland.

But this deft giver of gifts is not so giving of himself. Hal gives Lenore the trip to Venice for her birthday, but he spends her birthday night selfishly: one of Lenore’s lists of daily intake and events reveals, “H. texting, drinking, and smoking all night on the balcony,” while she “cried in [the] shower.” This note is on the same page with several beautiful snapshots of the couple in Venice eating pasta and looking delighted. The dissonance is deeply satisfying and particular to this new genre of Shapton’s. Another of Lenore’s lists about the Venice trip reads: “Pros: Fun, good sex, different world, art, travel / Cons: Depressive—drinking? celebrity fixation, bad breath, always traveling, doesn’t care about food, withholding.”

And the withholding just keeps on coming. Hal seems to be settled into the selfish habits of a bachelor and unwilling or unable to take Lenore’s feelings as seriously as he takes his own. His own desires are always more important than hers. In this he is elusive, unreliable, and rude. Shortly after the Venice trip, Hal stands Lenore up on his own birthday: “Darling, Am sorry about last night, please, please don’t get offended about the cake, I’ve always loathed meringue and thought I’d mentioned it. It looked great! And please understand I needed to spend my 40th with Jase and Toby—guy thing, God knows—but was having a bit of a wobble. Thanks for your understanding.” These little betrayals become something of a birthday tradition. The birthday trip Hal gives Lenore the next year (this time to Turkey) finds her writing, “What am I doing here?” in her day diary: “I hate his sullenness. I hate his arrogance. I hate his drinking. I hate his drinking.” And Hal’s birthday the year after the Turkey trip is memorialized in the auction catalogue by a note from Lenore to Hal written on the back of a grocery receipt: “You said you’d be back at 8, you could have called. Have gone to the movies. Here’s your present—Happy Birthday, L 9:45.” The note accompanies a vintage 1930s leather and wood chair, presumably the birthday present in question.

Other items suggest that Harold is more than just withholding. Several photos among the lots up for action show him talking intimately to women who are identified merely as “an unknown woman.” As with Hemingway’s baby shoes, these photos are suggestive while ambiguous—did he sleep with these women? Did he merely flirt with them? One also wonders, in light of this suggestion of infidelity, what he was doing the night that Lenore writes this note on a takeout flyer:

h am locked out! 9pm i can hear your cell inside! freezing! i’ll be at starbucks/ 10pm. still locked out. where are you? will be at malacy’s/ 1am—still locked out. at bar. come get me.

Lenore, for her part, has a terrible temper that makes Hal only more incapable of giving her what she needs. A note from Hal to Lenore that accompanies a slightly charred leather backgammon board reads:

I want this to work but there are sides to you I just can’t handle sometimes. When you raise your voice and throw things, I shut down and go cold. I know this makes it worse, but I can’t help it. Chucking the backgammon board in the fire was the last straw

The auction catalogue offers for sale and memorializes in notes several items damaged by Lenore (the one-time Lizzie Borden) in fits of rage: CDs broken in traffic, incense thrown at Hal during another fight, Hal’s favorite mug irreparably smashed, a mysteriously destroyed stockpot.

Among these ruined objects is perhaps the most telling item in the book—the item that seems to mark the point of no return for Lenore and Hal:

LOT 1305
A white noise machine
A No. 500 Sleep Sound by Invento
white noise machine kept by Morris
in the bedroom of 11a Sherman St.
Irreparable damage to top and sides,
as if struck by a hammer.

The symbolism of the smashed white noise machine is brilliant: the willful and violent destruction of a device designed to soothe someone to sleep—a shattering wake-up call for Hal, and a call that seems to come too late, or to call to a man who does not want to wake up. The demolished white noise machine comes after Lot 1305, a copy of Chocolates for Breakfast, by Pamela Moore, between whose pages is laid a note from Lenore to Hal: “Hal, am out for a walk. I think I might be pregnant. Please call me when you get this, I bought a pee test but want to discuss how we feel before I take it. Love, L.”

On the reverse side is Hal’s response:

Darling one, sorry to leave just a note in reply, but please understand I need some time to think too. Was not even going to stop home but forgot hard drive—am dashing en-route to Vermont to re-shoot for the next three days, Will call you from the hotel. I’m sorry, I know this seems bad but I need some space to think, please understand. Take the test—and we’ll figure it out—It’ll all be good. H x.

This, as it turns out, was not what Lenore needed to hear, nor does it seem that Lot 1307, the Hermes watch Hal gives her in apology (and the most expensive item in the catalogue) mends things between them: Hal’s material generosity cannot compensate for his unwillingness to give of himself. The next we hear of him, Hal is in India on assignment and wants to travel for several months after his work finishes. The couple’s final few brief exchanges suggest that each wants to be apart from the other, and the catalogue ends soon after, in two elegiac pages of flowers and four-leaf clovers that Lenore and Hal had pressed and kept.

In some sense, Shapton’s book most resembles a Japanese cell phone novel in that it too adapts an existing everyday form (the text message) to grander narrative aims. The Japanese cell phone novel, however, seems more interesting in theory than in fact. For all of its techno-formal innovation and its resemblance to other traditional Japanese forms like haiku, cell phone novels seem to tend towards salacious high school melodrama (Mika’s Sky of Love, for example, features teenage pregnancy, gang rape, and terminal illness) narrated in a clipped, childish prose reminiscent of—you guessed it—cell phone text messages. It might feel kind of avant to read a story narrated in text messages, but it doesn’t do much for the story.

Shapton’s formal adaption, by contrast, is a revelation. If Joseph Cornell had wanted to write novels or autobiographies, they might have looked like Important Artifacts. Hal and Lenore’s ephemera give a visceral sense of the precise moment with a clarity and power that is quite distinct from anything conventional narration or dialogue achieve. Lenore’s note to Hal when she’s locked out—written on the back of a take-out menu in permanent marker and a bold, scrawling style uncharacteristic of Lenore; her increasingly blunt diction—express her impotent rage toward Hal with a breathtaking intensity. Shapton’s technique allows her to fix fleeting temporal moments and emotional states in the material world. These precise moments are made motionless—like pinned butterflies—no longer difficult to handle and examine (as they always are in life). In this, and in the auction catalogue form itself, there is something suggestive of death, of lives finished and dismantled. The auction catalogue gives us evidence of life, but life taken out of circulation—life consigned to history, to the past.

The critic Albert Gelpi once described how “the artist kills experience into art,” exchanging some part of the vitality of experience for permanence because, “the fixity of ‘life’ in art and the fluidity of ‘life’ in nature are incompatible.” Only the best artists find the delicate balance between art’s fixity and life’s fluid vitality, and in Important Artifacts Leanne Shapton shows herself such an artist.