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Masque of the Pink Book Slasher 

The S.F. public library transforms destruction into creation

Wednesday, Mar 10 2004
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Great art and great crime have at least two things in common: Their success depends on perfect execution, and their inspiration comes from obscure motives and passions. It's a subject worthy of a book, one that could include excerpts from Sophocles and de Sade and illustrations like Goya's black paintings and Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat. For contemporary relevance, it might also reference the strange transgression of John Perkyns and an exhibit of some 200 art works created from the evidence of his misdeeds. This powerful show, Reversing Vandalism, is now on view at the crime scene, the San Francisco Public Library.

Four years ago, Perkyns, an apartment security guard, began slashing and defacing books at the library's main and Chinatown branches. Between the summer of 2000 and his arrest the following April, librarians noticed that his violent handiwork -- he damaged 607 books in total -- targeted volumes on gay and lesbian themes, HIV/AIDS, and bisexual and transgender issues. There were some anomalies: From a porcine photo book, The Complete Pig, he meticulously snipped away the behinds from cover images of swine; in some slashed volumes, he inserted texts from torn-up Catholic missals and pages from the Bay Area Reporter. His apparent homophobia extended to the proper name "Gay," and so books by journalist Gay Talese and historian Peter Gay, as well as Mark Levine's volume of poems titled Enola Gay (the name of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima), were subjected to his auto-da-fé. Perkyns' fanatical literalism gave new meaning to the question, "What's in a name?"

An off-duty librarian found him hiding a slashed copy of a pink-colored book, Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in 20th Century America. When police officers were called, they found a razor blade and torn pages from a volume on lesbianism in his jacket. Charged with a hate crime, Perkyns pled no contest. He was fined, sentenced to five years' probation, and is currently banned from entering city libraries.

For librarians and others in the community, Perkyns' crime provoked a sense of shock and outrage that recalled the trauma of the Harvey Milk assassination. And when police returned the boxes of slashed books to the library, its horrified staff struggled to figure out what to do with the damaged goods. The volumes were irreparably damaged, but destroying them seemed like a continuation of the violence. After talking with an artist friend, Jim Van Buskirk, manager for the library's James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, found a solution: Use the damaged books creatively. A public call went out for submissions that could turn vandalism into art.

For Van Buskirk, co-author of Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, the project had a personal resonance. "Seeing a stack of several copies of my own book defaced," writes Van Buskirk in his introduction to the show, "I thought about the perpetrator so threatened by ideas, and how he might feel about the people who hold those ideas. What, I wondered, is the leap from carving up books to carving up people?"

The exhibit required each artist to work from a defaced title and to provide an artist's statement about the process and content of what he had produced. The successful juxtaposition of text and image is particularly evident in Charles H. Stinson's One Red Crane, a piece that uses the book Bisexual Living as its primary material. Stinson decided to explore and continue Perkyns' vandalism by using a sharp blade to cut four-by-four-inch squares from each page. He folded these into a pile of origami cranes surrounding the defaced book, transforming the violence of cutting into a meditative act requiring patience and a delicate touch. "Folding cranes," writes Stinson in his explanation, "is a gesture that implicates peace, healing, and forgiveness." By chance, one of the volume's end pages was a blood-red sheet, from which Stinson cut another crane that he then suspended at the center of the open book's incised square window. The red bird suggests passion, he added, and "... one who cuts this content from the universe is trapped by the void that remains."

Oakland artist Celeste Cooper used a small bathroom window as a frame to suggest the voyeurism implicit in Perkyns' violent censorship. It surrounds a backing of sheet music, onto which she stitched thin horizontal strips from a topographical map showing lakes and hills. She also sewed fragments of the volume's barcode, library envelope, stamped due dates, and Hormel Center book plate into the collage, along with phrases torn from pages, like "The Devil's Pay." Over these, she painted the outline of three male figures along with the work's evocative title, You Cannot Destroy Me: I Will Not Go Away. Cooper's work is a passionate defense of gay rights.

Artists like James Chaffee challenge the viewer by questioning the exhibit's core assumption about transforming destruction into creation. In his photo collage Art Vandalism Reverse No. 2, Chaffee juxtaposes two photographs, one of a man getting a tattoo and another of a nude figure entirely covered with tattoos. Both pictures are set above piles of vandalized books that rise beneath the Hormel Center's circular ceiling mural, with its illuminated band naming notables known to have had same-sex relationships -- Walt Whitman, Jean Genet, and Ma Rainey among them. "The vandal is a human being," Chaffee writes in his accompanying text. "He is an outsider. Aren't we all outsiders?" Perkyns, he suggests, was also making a political statement. And if reversal is the show's mandate, does that mean the artist should avoid political content? Chaffee is concerned that the vandal's banishment from the library prevents him from seeing this collage, which includes both the photographer's and Perkyns' images. The artist wonders if he should reverse them: "Wouldn't that be the point? Wouldn't that be the ultimate political statement?"

For artists like Lynn Averill, preserving the integrity of the wounded book in the face of violence inflicted upon it was paramount. In her assemblage, Coming Out, a scarred volume with that title is surrounded by neatly assembled rows of razors and X-Acto knife blades arranged to look like pen quills. The title is a metaphor for the survival of gay culture itself, and her work is a powerful rebus for the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword.

Seth Eisner was initially disappointed by the title he was given to work with, a historical summary of laws criminalizing homosexuality and police techniques used for arrests. But as he poured through the text, he became intrigued by the double game of entrapment, a fascination spurred by a reality TV show featuring a cop bragging about his success with the method. So Eisner attacked the book, cutting out detailed stencils, some illustrating police actions and others showing queer affection. He reduced the rest of the volume to pulp, reconstituting it as handmade paper for an accordion book featuring his stenciled scenes and some original chapter titles (such as "Somatic Techniques of Policing"). The result is a true work of pulp fiction, called The Homosexual(ity) of Law, whose theme suggests parallels between seduction and entrapment torn from the pages of legal history.

Perkyns cut masklike forms into the covers of some these books, using a signature motif -- almond-shaped eyes or tear drops -- that many of the artists incorporated into their own works. Indeed, the motif eerily appears on the pink book that finally unmasked him and led to his arrest, Becoming Visible. Was this Perkyns' closest approximation of artistic expression?

Reversing Vandalism is one of the most disturbing and courageous collective art projects in memory. And it has a special relevance now that San Francisco has moved into center stage in the current round of America's culture wars over gay marriage. There are national lessons about tolerance to be learned from Perkyns' crime and our library's response to it. Perhaps our new mayor should invite the first lady, a former librarian herself, to come have a look.

About The Author

Carl Nagin

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