Sex, drugs, books, runs, herbs, rhythmic breathing—High Winds tries them all, but still sleep eludes him.
High Winds is the title character in trans playwright and multimedia artist Sylvan Oswald’s loosely narrative, poetic art book. Sleeplessness is a theme throughout. In the book’s appendix, the author supplies an alphabetical list of more remedies for weary insomniacs, among them Ambien, Ativan, cannabis (Indica), ear plugs, eye masks, herbal tea, hypnosis, meditation, melatonin, and warm milk.
High Winds is a small, pastel-hued book with sunset-inspired geometric graphic designs by L.A.-based artist Jessica Fleischmann and pithy, all-caps text by Oswald. It is one of four books released last year by the new L.A.-based publisher X Artists’ Books (XAB). On Tuesday, February 27, Oswald will appear alongside XAB co-founders Alexandra Grant and Keanu Reeves at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever for a PEN USA event featuring readings, projections of artwork from the books, and a moderated conversation. (Sadly, the event is sold out.)
It’s not unusual for Hollywood celebrities like Reeves to dabble in off-screen passion projects. L.A. is peppered with movie star-backed restaurants, boutiques, and clothing lines.
“I do have a fairly entrepreneurial aspect,” Reeves says. “That first manifested itself with producing. So this to me feels a little like that.”
In addition to his production company, Company Films, the 53-year old actor also manufactures motorcycles. A custom-built, one-of-a-kind Arch motorcycle starts at $78,000.
The price point for XAB’s books is far more modest. The publisher’s available titles range in price from $25 to $60, and all four can be snagged for $130 with a subscription.
The tone of this project feels different, too; less turbo-charged masculinity and more subtle, socially conscious artistry. That sensibility comes in part from artist Alexandra Grant, XAB’s cofounder and Reeves’s longtime friend.
On a recent Friday afternoon in Hollywood, Reeves and Grant sat around a table of XAB books to talk about their new company. In conversation, the two friends share an easy rapport and speak in a comfortable shorthand fueled by inside jokes and knowing smiles.
It was, in fact, an inside joke among friends that led to their first literary collaboration seven years ago. Ode to Happiness is a tongue-in-cheek adult picture book with text by Reeves and illustrations by Grant. It reminds readers that things could always be worse as the miserable protagonist washes his hair with “regret shampoo” and dons “alone again silk pajamas.”
For Ode to Happiness and the pair’s second collaboration, Shadows, Grant and Reeves worked with the German publisher Steidl.
“We learned from that,” Reeves says. “Creatively, we wanted to work with other people and give them opportunity.”
“I have this memory of being at Steidl,” Grant adds. “And that world has a lot in common with the production world of film in that there’s a lot of waiting, waiting, waiting. But there was this moment there when Keanu, who is Canadian, said, ‘We’re going to show them some American can-do!’”
Grant laughs as Reeves repeats the line in a slow, exaggerated southern drawl.
“We really like ‘can-do,’” Grant continues. “Some people are the kind of dreamers who have a lot of ideas but don’t like to get things done. I think we both like to have the idea and get it into the world.”
And so XAB was born. (It launched officially during the summer of 2017). Grant explains that XAB’s goal was never to create exhibition catalogues or artists’ monographs. Instead, they were interested in publishing books featuring “unusual collaborations,” books that “don’t really have a place because they’re between genres.”
One of those in-between genre projects is The Words of Others, an English translation of Argentinian artist León Ferrari’s politically charged, cut-and-paste text from the 1960s. A mashup of newspaper headlines, excerpts from the Bible and quotes from Lyndon Johnson, Pope Paul VI, and Hitler, the book critiques the Vietnam war in graphic detail. Last fall, XAB participated in the cross-institutional Latin-American art event Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA with a performative reading of the text at REDCAT.
“Thematically we’re really interested in darkness and politics,” Grant says. “We’re also interested in marginal voices that are exciting, and in exploring the performative and experimental. I think a book can become a seed, a DNA for world-building.”
Like that live endurance reading of The Words of Others, XAB’s other titles have sparked events, performances and exhibitions. “Each book has gone on to stimulate real-world opportunities and possibilities for the artists in the same way that Shadows did for us as artists,” Grant says. She references that phenomenon as one of the reasons the duo likes to participate in events like next week’s PEN USA conversation: “To build real community, and also have an IRL experience.”
High Winds hits all those marks. Last fall, Oswald produced three performances derived from his book, complete with a live score by Jerome Ellis and projections of Fleishmann’s designs.
Reeves loves Oswald’s meandering, insomniac’s tale. “Quality,” he says, leaning forward as if to land a big pitch. (The actor is natural showman, a salesman, but a sincere one.) “High Winds is rock-and-roll, baby!”
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