Magazine Review #10: Esopus, Issue #17


Reading Esopus is more akin to walking around an art gallery than flipping through a publication. While technically a magazine, in the sense that it’s a bound stack of paper, Esopus is a carefully curated collection of art, photography, writing, music, and other creative projects. Published twice-annually, Esopus is unfailingly beautiful, a generous compendium of contemporary art. There is something fundamentally different about Esopus, something that separates it from other magazines. It is aesthetically unlike any other magazine I’ve ever read, but there is something beyond that. There is a beautiful lack of cohesion to Esopus, which promotes intellectual and emotional curiosity. The work included here is completely unmediated, and without the clutter that usually surrounds creative work, it’s nice to sit back with an issue of Esopus and just breathe.

I’ve been thinking about art a lot lately, both the creation of it and the purpose of it. Perhaps because Stephen has been writing about such things in his recent Daily Rumpus emails, but also because the definition of art feels broader now than at any other time. Art doesn’t just live on a gallery wall or in a theatre or on a bookshelf. Is a blog art? What about a Facebook status? Or a video game? Sure, in one way or another, I think the case can be made for almost anything.

But what of hype? What of the people who declare something to be worthy of our attention? The Marie Calloway buzz for instance. I’m fairly ambivalent about the story itself, but intrigued by the reaction surrounding it. People seem to be hung up on whether or not writing from life is a legitimate way to write fiction. To me, this is an irrelevant question. I’m much more concerned with how the writing affects me. Is it new or different? Is it doing something on the sentence level that I’ve never seen? Does the story elicit a reaction? Does it make me cry? Does it make me angry? Does it make me think? Which is another way of saying, what is the point of art?

The thing about the internet is that there will always be something new; there will be another “it” girl in a couple days. And the reaction to her story/movie/blog/etc will be exactly the same as it was for Marie Calloway. People become very divided about these kinds of things, very defensive. On my more optimistic days, I believe this is because people genuinely care about art. We crave art. We need it. And we know we need it. When something of questionable artistic merit gets hoisted up, the proverbial shit hits the fan and those of us that spend our days in internet-land are inundated with comment sections that go on for days about the value of such and such art, and vicious debates about what is and isn’t art, and what is and isn’t ethically ok for an artist to do. It’s a conversation that will never end because no one is really wrong. Art is about opinion. Art is about expression. So are comment sections.

All of which is to say that I take comfort in magazines like Esopus. I take refuge from the digital world here. There are no ads in this magazine, no room for debate, no soapboxes, no trends. It’s just a collection of art, presented without comment. I can sit quietly with it and absorb it slowly. This may be why I love all printed matter; it allows me to get away from my screen and interact with something that cannot interact back. It allows me the opportunity to react to art alone, which is almost impossible to do online. The second Stephen’s Marie Calloway interview was up, I instant-messaged a friend to talk about it; it’s become a kneejerk reaction because interaction is the very core of sharing information on the internet. Esopus is an antidote to the chatter that fills much of my day.

I discovered this magazine six years ago when I saw Esopus Editor Tod Lippy on an AIGA panel. (Also on the panel: Lisa Farjam of Bidoun, and David Haskell of Topic.) At the time I was working at Paper magazine and had just finished a degree in media studies. I was starting to publish regularly and New York was the beating heart of it all. It was a creative high point in my life and one of the few times I can remember being truly hopeful about the future. I remember sitting in this lecture, completely happy and creatively inspired by these young editors who talked about how they had put together magazines on their own. It would only be a couple years later that I would start my own magazine, and I probably owe it all to Tod Lippy (who, by the way, I’ve never actually met).

One of the reasons I was so inspired by Lippy was that, while on the panel, he never seemed to have an answer for why he created Esopus, or what it was supposed to be about. He gave vague, friendly answers, which could have applied to just about anyone who had started an art magazine and he seemed to intentionally avoid stating exactly what the purpose of Esopus was. Consider another magazine on the panel, Bidoun, which has a very specific mission: coverage of Middle East arts and culture. It’s a magazine that is driven by content and devoted to a particular type of commentary (which most magazines are). Esopus on the other hand, is not exactly trying to “do” anything. It’s not promoting a perspective, but rather presenting a variety of perspectives as simply as possible, allowing us to respond to the art however we wish. There is almost no commentary about the artwork included in the magazine, not even artist’s statements, and aside from a few introductory paragraphs, we are left to interpret the work on our own.

I don’t really want to describe the work that is in Esopus #17 because it seems contrary to the purpose of sitting down with it and making sense of it on your own. But a few highlights include a selection of photography by Inge Morath, black and white beauties from a Paris charity event in 1955 (also the cover image), Guarded Opinions, fascinating essays in which art museum guards offer their perspective on works at MASS MoCA, and Oddments, poetry by Jessica Elsaesser. At nearly 200-pages there are many more treasures in this issue, including several pullout pieces, a contact sheet (oh nostalgia for the days of film!), a critical essay/interview on infinity, and an original culture game complete with cut-out cards.

I love Esopus because of its singularity; it is smart and inventive, and there are literally no other magazines like it. But I also love it because (if I could anthropomorphize it a bit) Esopus feels somewhat reserved, understated, shy even, and yet, eternally hopeful. It’s a cocktail of personality that I find mostly missing from the digital world. There is this strange sense of urgency on the internet, a grab for clicks and likes, neon signs that point to every stream of chatter that collectively shifts when something else gets hyped. It’s a very loud place and it makes me tired. Sometimes I just want to step out of the conversation for a while. Sometimes I just want to sit with a cup of tea and a substantial magazine like Esopus and consider the world all on my own.

Nancy Smith is a writer and graphic designer. Her work has been published in Paper, The Believer, Seattle Weekly, Resonance, and Communication Arts. She has an M.A. in Media Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She blogs about books, design, and technology here: More from this author →