John Carrera, “Dueling Dictionary”

Cover Spread

The Dueling Dictionary plays off the “War of the Dictionaries:” the heated rivalry between the G. & C. Merriam Co. and the Worcester Co in the 1800’s. It features engravings of John Andrew who did the engraving for both dictionaries. In this saloon-door book, images from the Dictionary War emerge into the 21st Century to duel with new images engraved by artist John Carrera. Reading the text across the top and bottom of the page spreads creates over 365 different combinations of word and image to create new stories or to act as daily meditations.

Pipe and Oarlock

Readers of Pictorial Webster’s know that the Pipe is the key to the surrealist undertone of that book. Using the same Pipe image, so reminiscent of Magritte’s, makes readers mindful of how the saloon opening of this book is a kind of bilateral surrealist exquisite corpses structure. The pipe also reminds readers of the surrealist belief that the names we have given to objects are not always correct. By giving objects new word associations we can tap into the subconscious or true meanings of things. The Oarlock becomes very much a Duchampian piece of beauty when displayed and so labeled. Is it a mechanism that can be utilized to move us forward or through a childhood memory to a better frame of consciousness?

The Dueling Pens

The Tickle Feather Quill is mightier than the Bow Pen? I couldn’t resist replacing the swords with pens of various types. Even if I had to use a fern to make a feather. . .it works, yes? In the same way that these images were changed with one recombination – combining these word swordsmen will make new stories . . . turn the pages to see them fending off the Hermaphraditic Flower image, the Lion, or the Stegosaurus!

I started playing with this book idea in 2010. For the show I had at MassMoCA I made a 4’ by 8’ version of the Dueling Dictionary for which I had the idea of combining Shiva – the creator and destroyer of the Universe – and the Buddha to stand for the constant cycle of birth and rebirth creating the perfect solution to resolving this structure. In this picture one gets a sense of the running texts on the verso pages, and also the way the images from the recto pages recombine and interact. I found it meaningful that the Shiva and Buddha both appear on each of the recto pages. . . . nothing is an absolute.

Dueling Dictionary from John Carrera on Vimeo.

Please watch the first 2 minutes of video. My video imagines a farmer coming across the Dueling Dictionary and reading it.

John Carrera
Frederick, Maryland

Dueling Dictionary
Letterpress printed, coil bound
edition size of 1000
42 pages
3” x 14 ¼ x ½”
3” x 7 ½” x ½”

I probably will be best remembered in the Book Arts community for Pictorial Webster’s: a 400 plus page “Artists’ Reference” which has been a part of my creative life for the past 21 years. My goal as a book artist is to explore the use of well crafted structure to help inform the content of my work and to make work that succeeds on numerous levels, combining beautiful and engaging visual content with original and intelligent text.

The Dueling Dictionary is a stark counterpoint to the dense and complicated Pictorial Webster’s. The sumptuous hand-bound Pictorial Webster’s is self-conscious about its historical hand-bound technique and the nature of the fine letterpress printing done using 19th Century wood engravings. While the Dueling Dictionary is cleanly, and beautifully printed by hand in what took 7 print runs, it is done with polymer plate. Visual aesthetic is elevated over historical fussiness. The Dueling Dictionary employs a fast and inexpensive binding technique that dovetails with the seductively simple sense that this book conveys. The coil binding not only allows it to open more freely physically, but also to sell more openly as a democratic multiple.

A surrealist idea generator, taught exploration of the power of text vs. image, and celebration of the engraved image; conceptually, Dueling Dictionary grapples with the elemental forces that go into creating Artist’s Books and is one of my proudest creations. In many ways it acts as a more potent distillation of these concepts than the encyclopedic Pictorial Webster’s where they are all explored, but in similar fashion to a 19th Century expedition may become hidden, lost, or forgotten in the halls of an archaic museum. Though the Dueling Dictionary works on multiple levels, the main concepts are visceral and immediate and allow a reader the leeway to go where he or she will.