Review by Matt Theado
Does reading the Beat writers help you (or force you) to see your life in radical new ways? Elia Inderle’s Overpainted Beats: Explosions of Blood will help you (or force you) to see the Beats in radical new ways.
Overpainted Beats reprints a series of well-known photographs of Jack Kerouac along with several of William Burroughs, and a couple of Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, Bob Dylan, and Herbert Huncke. Italian artist Elia Inderle has tinted most of the photographs blue, which gives them a cool and distant look, and, alarmingly, has brushed or splashed over the prints with red paint. The red paint contrasts violently with the cool blue distance. At first glance, the red paint seems an act of vandalism, a deliberate corruption of the integrity of the photograph. There’s a photograph of Kerouac with a drink in his hand, head tilted, eyes down: the red paint runs horizontally across his image, giving the impression that the photo’s been run over by a car. This is just one of the ways the book unsettles the viewer and dislocates the photographs. The result is a freshly disturbing experience in viewing photos we’ve grown familiar with.
The book has no page numbers. There’s no text on the pages to explain the photos. No captions give the location or event. Dissociated from their historical and biographical contexts, the photos don’t illustrate an identifiable moment in the life of the subject. They simply appear. If you don’t already know Kerouac and Burroughs’s life stories, you wouldn’t associate these photos with a particular event or time. You wouldn’t even know these guys were writers. Most EBSN folks have seen these photos countless times, though. I first saw some of them in Dennis McNally’s Desolate Angel in 1979, as I learned about the Beats for the first time. The photos in McNally’s book served a purpose. They presented images of the Beats so that readers would know what they look like. In those photos, the guys were actively doing something, even if they were only mugging for the camera. Since then, I’ve seen the same photos hundreds of times in hundreds of contexts. As a result, I no longer really see Kerouac and Burroughs and Ginsberg. Instead, I see the reproduced images.
Rather than experiencing my first look at these writers, I wonder about the publisher’s choices: why choose this photo? And as a publishing academic, I sometimes wonder How much did they pay for permission fees? I’m not seeing the photos as images of the writers anymore, but as commodified artifacts of publication. In Overpainted Beats, Inderle is not publishing the images to illustrate a text. His book has no text. Nor are the photos chronologically arranged to present a narrative of literary history. Have you every sorted through a box of photos of people you don’t know? Maybe at a flea market or in the dusty side room of an old book shop. The effect on the viewer who leafs through this book is one of moving through timeless space and latching onto unidentified instants, moments, flashes of a camera bulb that immobilize a subject in a sculpted pose.
In that sense, it may be that the taking of the original photographs of the Beats was the initial act of vandalism. When we read a biography or one of Kerouac’s true-life novels or when we read Burroughs’s correspondence, we tend to match these photographs to their appropriate locations in their stories as if we were extracting a slice for examination under a microscope, analyzing a frozen moment of what in reality was a continuous flow of life. Photographs cancel that flow. The subtitle, “explosions of blood,” brings back a sense of the dangerous vitality of the writers. Connotations of blood include passion, life, and health, but preceded by the noun “explosions” blood evokes the violence of random brutality. I’d suggest the subtitle applies not only to the application of red paint to the photographs but also to a way of seeing these frozen moments reproduced 1000 times in biographies and advertisements. Inderle rips them from their contemporary context and thrusts them back into the life from which they were taken.
This effect is intensified by the artist’s omission of the names of the photographers and, rather excitingly, of any reference for permission to publish these photographs in a trade book. The Beats’ images have been commodified into the marketplace of copyrights. This book subverts that system. It re-presents the slices of life taken from these writers and reinserts them into the impassioned and bloody circumstances of their origin.
Oliver Harris’s introduction provides biographical and cultural context and guides readers in ways they might engage these photos. Harris also analyzes the significance of the image in the Beats’ legend-making process. His essay is insightful for the way he objectivizes the purpose of the images and the process of making them, even as he personalizes the role of the images in his life.
Overpainted Beats: Explosions of Blood can be a powerful counterpoint to the biographies and letters collections on your Beat bookshelf.
Link to the publisher’s website: http://www.molokoplusrecords.de/finder.php?folder=Print&content=169
Please find the book description here: https://ebsn.eu/news/new-publications/elia-inderle-oliver-harris-overpainted-beats-explosions-of-blood/