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

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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.

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.

As a collection, it's a joy to explore.

Riddles, plays on pop culture and nods to contemporary artists weave throughout it, but always in a way that links back to very basic potty humor. Take the first of the series. It's called Theogony and it's our protagonist's origin story. Designed in the size and shape of a family photo album, many pages require that you play along. Some fold up and down, revealing hidden pictures. Other bend left and right. There's even an hourglass with a sliding tab. Pull it and you've shifted the sand from top to bottom, exposing tricks and deeds done by the magician.

By this book's end, the character's been conceived in a john, decapitated his parents, spun through a wheeled kaleidoscope and created energy, weather and matter. You, whether you know it or not, have folded and unfolded pages in symmetry -- north, south, east and west exist in perfect balance.

Next is a pop-up book that picks up where Theogony left off, taking the magician into three-dimensional space through a series of re-appropriated found images. From there, you're free to roam this paradoxical cosmos, selecting items from the case in any order you like, but I've got to warn you: It gets really weird in there.

There's a Moleskine notebook filled with photographs of actual wads of pubic hair, shot and printed in such a tricky way that they look pencil-sketched, as though some bathroom attendant or overseer had been keeping a daily tally of the room's errant discards.

Another, called Handmade, uses a collage-style layout in which hands tell religious stories, cast ferocious shadow puppets and make kid art. In one section there's an extremely cheerful and cartoonish painting of a reindeer head, traced from a hand. It looks like something you'd see hanging on a fridge. If it and the page next to it are held together, you see both the animal's right and left profiles. If you allow them to open up, there's a meticulously printed Hirst-like cross section of the creature's interior anatomy. Other graphics express extremely primal references, like handjobs and fisting.

There's a folded poster called She-Wolf that when smoothed open resembles a map. But the landscape is formed from an odd topography of origami-styled clothing, arranged to reference male and female genitalia, mountainscapes, toilet paper and a wolf climbing a rock. Flip it over and it's a magician's cape. The medical slides are hilarious, shrinking the antihero down to a microscopic level. He performs multiplying tricks geared toward infinity, all on what looks like an iodine backdrop. "It's a totally articulated misunderstanding of mitosis," Byrne says. "Your teacher would just cringe."

A forehead-slap moment happens during the big finale: turning on the magic crate's LED screen. Newton and Byrne thought it would be fun to add the possibility of disappointment, like when you'd get a Christmas toy with missing batteries. To activate the video, you must buy the magician's hat separately. Naturally, it's more than just an adapter or ordinary top hat; the brim opens up, converting the shape into a toilet seat. Inside a motor, fan and light turn on, lifting a "flame" of glowing toilet paper up out of the bowl to blow around in a fiery motion. When the box is finally plugged in, the video on the LED screen turns on.

It's about five minutes worth of flushing.

A lot of The Magician's charm, and what keeps it from getting bogged down in darker existential goo, is that juvenile humor fueling it all. As Byrne says, "This is the book we would have made in middle school, if we had resources."

We're crude beings, running off fairly base GI tracts, occasionally nudged forward by sparks of larger thought or ambition. Here we get to play with that, while feeling a little humbled by the shocking level of thematic intricacies booby-trapping each page, much like the world we inhabit. And the fact that the most elaborate new art book being made condenses to one existential fart joke? Well, chalk that up as a win for Byrne and Newton.

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