Los Angeles is not a city of literature like Iowa City, Prague, Dublin or Krakow. Some of its best neighborhood bookstores closed in the past ten years, including Dutton’s Brentwood books and Diesel in Malibu. And yet, L.A. is home to a thriving literary and book lovers’ community. The city hosts the country’s largest Festival of Books every year, the Hammer Museum holds poetry and novel readings, Los Angeles-based writer Viet Thanh Nguyen received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, novelist Mona Simpson (who has written six novels) teaches creative writing at UCLA, and one of America’s finest fiction writers, T.C. Boyle has taught at USC.
Ellen Cantor’s “Prior Pleasure”, is a delight for these kinds of people, who appreciate and have an appetite for books and everything that goes along with them — storytelling, book illustrations, aesthetics of font style, and their very physicality. The show displays Cantor’s photographs of children’s literature from “Robinson Crusoe” to “Huckleberry Fin” to “Nancy Drew” to “Little Women.” She employs a double exposure technique done in the camera (not in Photoshop) to allow the viewer to see the illustrations and the text at the same time. Through this, the books appear both transparent and veiled. The effect is to create a sense of nostalgic reverie that references the feeling of flipping through a book’s pages. Playfully, Cantor sometimes turns things around by accentuating the illustration in a book that mostly consists of text. At other times, she only allows the title page to emerge. Overall, it’s a charming show that reminds us how the first books we’ve read stimulated our imagination and taught us about social justice and other values.