Johnny Carrera’s upcoming installation at Mass MoCA is technically an extension of his book, “Pictorial Webster,” but it’s also something that never would have happened if not for a chance encounter in his grandmother’s house.
Carrera’s prints will be featured in the show “Life’s Work,” which opens at Mass MoCA on Saturday, March 23.
As Carrera, who specializes in book and print making, recounted in the book, he found an 1898 edition of Webster’s Dictionary while rummaging through his grandmother’s stone farm house in 1995. Captivated by a loose 80-page section of the book that had nothing but illustrations of entries, Carrera embarked on an as-yet-unfinished journey of obsession for the bookmaker.
Carrera tracked down the original engravings through the Merriam-Webster Co. to Yale University, home to more than 10,000 of them and center for the next decade of Carrera’s life, which he devoted to getting the engravings back in print.
The book came out in 2009, and will be followed up by “Pictorial Webster’s Pocket Dictionary” this summer, and both efforts have taken on multiple purposes in the world and in Carrera’s own life.
“I’ve taken the surrealist approach of letting these images help you plumb into your psyche to find your own meanings,” Carrera said. “It’s kind of a meditation book and, to be really frank, it has helped me at times when I’ve been feeling down in the process. I end up going to that and it will be like, ‘okay, this is a good reminder of things one needs to do.’ “
Carrera’s effort has seen the original images that he tracked down augmented with some of his own making, such as a railroad spike and rain, which he felt were interesting additions that were appropriate to the time of the original images, and also had a meta quality that spoke to the project as a whole.
“The one that comes to mind now is DuChamp’s bicycle wheel, which, for me, was an art historical explanation of what I was doing in the book,” said Carrera. “I was taking these workaday images and elevating them into works of art by presenting them in a way that says, ‘this is art.’
“Another way that that work is such a great touchstone for the book was it was also taking two different things and putting them together to make something beautiful. That’s what I’m hoping is happening with the book with people all the time, that they’re trying to combine images on the page to come up with new ideas.”
The show at Mass MoCA has given him the opportunity to go through the images again with fresh eyes, and find new groupings that can be as revelatory as the single images he offers. More than one image can create narratives and raise questions, but the real problem for Carrera has been how to translate the book into a museum space.
“The question I asked myself when I was given the opportunity was, ‘How the hell am I going to turn these one inch-square images into something that will engage viewers in this epic imagination?” he said. “I had this thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you could walk into a gallery and it would be like walking into a page of the book, or actually being in the book?’ “
“Curator Denise Markonish says that when I was describing this to her, I told her that I’ve been living inside the pages of the book and I want to bring that same experience to the viewers at the museum. I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds awfully good.”
His original thought was that he could paint the images on the wall or project them, but time was a consideration, as well as the capturing the complexities in the lines of some of them. His solution was to teach himself silk-screening, but he required an alternate material to put the images on, canvas being very expensive.
His solution, at the advice of a former associate, was to print on discarded sails, which he could get from sailmakers.
“It’s not canvas, it’s Dacron, and it’s a nightmare,” Carrera said. “When it prints perfectly, it prints perfectly. If it doesn’t print perfectly, it’s either way too light or way too dark. It’s not like printing on paper at all. It’s slightly absorbent, but if your ink is at all watery, it’ll run. So there will be a little bit of that interesting printing in the show, too, as much as I’d like it to not be the case. The sheer magnitude of this project means I can’t be fixing everything.”
Carrera is using the hi-res scans that Chronicle Books did for the book proofs as his source for the printing, and he’s poured himself into researching the images contained in the book in order to map his interest for what he would like to be on the sails and why.
“I’ve been doing a lot of research on endangered and threatened wildlife, because that’s most of the imagery that I wanted to pull out form the books,” said Carrera. “How many of the animals and plants that were in these original dictionaries are now extinct or soon-to-be extinct? That was the basis for the first three sails. Then I introduced the seeds of destruction that were also being created at the same time.”
While these subjects are indicative of the era the images come from, Carrera was also conscious of not allowing the installation to get too much of a downer.
“These dictionaries were first being illustrated at such a fascinating time in the 19th century,” he said. “You have both these new discoveries and the things that are going to destroy those discoveries in one place. It just became very depressing to me. I decided I would make a sail of hope, as well.”.
Carrera has expanded the work not only beyond the book, but the media of hanging a picture to be looked at statically. He has collaborated with installation artist Ben Rubin for a video component that would have every page of the book superimposed over each other.
“I’ve also been printing on articles of clothing,” said Carrera. “I’ve been giving them to folks, so at the opening, I’m hoping to have dozens of people who are wearing the work that’s also on the walls.”
Central to Carrera’s message is that these images belong to all of us, and in many ways, this show at MoCA is one more way to present this collective treasure, as well as tap into extremely personal feelings of his own.
“I didn’t make many of these images, but I have become so intimately attuned to the lines of some of these images that they’re like my children,” he said.
“I feel as if they belong to me, even though a lot of my feeling in doing this work is to say it really belongs to our culture. They’re really cultural artifacts of 19th century America. That’s one of the things that I’m playing with in this exhibit.”