Baffling, Elaborate and Beautiful, The Magician Rewrites the Rules on Art Books

Photo by Catherine Downes

This magician's crate wouldn't quite fit as a carry-on. It's a custom-built blend of wood and metal, perched on casters, painted black and decorated by a white rope pattern that crisscrosses its width. It serves as a sculptural rolling library for the 12 books hiding inside. They slide in and out with the same satisfying thud you'd get from pushing a blade into an old magician's compartment trick. And while most of them are paper-based and of varying sizes, one "book" is actually a series of microscope slides, usable through a light-up ocular lens installed into the crate's top. Another is an LED screen that plays a five-minute video animation when plugged into a special hat. Barely any of them contain words, but together they might hold the secret to the universe.

This is The Magician, the most complicated art book currently in production. And it's coming out of Dallas.

Author Chris Byrne, who's also co-founder of the Dallas Art Fair, laughs while he explains the project -- and with a tone that sounds a lot like a dare. What you notice as he flips through the pages is his fairly cunning way of not explaining The Magician's thesis.

Photo by Catherine Downes
Card trick "toilet paper" flip book, made by hand-stamping letter press
He will tell you about the little things that make it so special, like how each piece is uniquely bound, some portions by hand at Tieton, a tiny incubator community of artisans, cider pressers and makers of fine books in Central Washington, founded by The Magician's publisher, Ed Marquand.

Or how others are made out of unconventional materials, like the card-trick flip book whose textured pages replicate the quilted print of toilet paper. Achieving that look required hand-stamping each page out of letter press, something that simply isn't done in bookmaking. But the more conceptual elements, the theory and perceptions you glean from interacting with the work -- and it is interactive -- those are things Byrne would rather not influence or interpret.

At its core this is the story of a hermaphroditic magician, conceived in a public bathroom, who goes on to kill his parents and create the universe. It's more or less non-linear and is rigorously thematic. And while it's made up of 12 individual works, they're considered parts of the whole. This case, this story, is The Book. And Byrne's been working on it off and on for more than 20 years.

Until 2011, The Magician wasn't the orderly collection it is now. It was hundreds of drawings and graphics and notes, stashed under Chris Byrne's bed. When he met designer Scott Newton, all of that changed. He gave Newton about 120 gigs of images and shared his ideas about shaping the project. Newton started developing concepts for matching the like works up, built the magician's box and found creative ways to play with and sort through Byrne's underlying themes.

Now that the prototype is nearly complete they've been able to show it off. They're currently in Paris at an outsider book fair, but it's been attracting crowds at other niche literary shows in Los Angeles and New York and received nerdy accolades by Comic Journal co-editors Gary Panter and Dan Nadel. Once they finish this first limited pressing -- only 20 crates of books and five artists' proofs will be made -- Byrne and Newton hope to build an online version of the documents, allowing this aesthetic sleight of hand to digitally reach a broader audience.

Sponsor Content

My Voice Nation Help

Waaah! When does this go on display in the Dallas area??? I mean, besides online, which would require they re-think the entire way many of these print illusions operate. It's like trying to make a great pop-up book work on a video screen -- it doesn't have the same 'wow' factor. 

Unless Byrne is building his own, whole new 3D online experience....


@losingmyreligion I would assume that it will be at the Dallas Art Fair, since Byrne is a founder. He admits that since making this version took about ten solid years, creating a comparable virtual model of equal intricacy could take equally long. By then, we might have that 3D online experience.

Now Trending

Dallas Concert Tickets

From the Vault