Books are dead, we keep hearing: dead, dead, dead. And yet, like zombies that can discourse on both European philosophy and cat health, bookstores continue to shuffle on as vectors of inspiration for some decidedly living people. Adobe Books, near the intersection of 16th and Valencia streets, is one of the best examples. Its walls are lined with used books and a large social networking graph of sorts — a mural of names painted by Amanda Eicher in 2007 that comprises a family tree of artists and authors influenced by Adobe or the Mission School.
Add Orion Shepherd to the tree. The 2006 California College of the Arts grad was already obsessed with vintage books and ephemera before he was asked by curator Devon Bella to show at the bookstore's tiny Backroom Gallery, but the setting fits like a dustjacket. Shepherd paints miniature versions of book covers, album covers, magazines, and pamphlets. He often places them together in groupings that suggest a story. For the Backroom show “I Was a Green Beret,” he combines his love of print and interest in an elite branch of the U.S. Army.
The connection is obvious, at least to the artist. Green Berets, as the movie Rambo: First Blood pointed out, are obsolete. Rambo, Shepherd says, is a man who “used to be something that was very useful in combat, but whose skills aren't useful in a post-Vietnam world.” In a similar vein, Shepherd's interests lean toward “what contemporary society deems irrelevant. I really like collecting stuff. I started with sticks and rocks, then Star Wars action figures, moved on to records, then it was books and magazines, manila envelopes. … I could keep going, but you get the idea.” Shepherd comes by it honestly: His parents are both high school English teachers, he says, and “they have a ton of bookshelves with old paperbacks.”
To complete the analogy, Shepherd offers up the piece that gives the show its title. I Was a Green Beret is a diptych painting of a book jacket that includes a fake author's biography casting the artist himself as a Green Beret. It's the least effective artwork in the show, however, because you have to be in on the joke. The other pieces stand on their own. One of the most visually arresting is The Right Stuff Part I, 2009, a painting of Tom Wolfe's 1979 astronaut potboiler. Set against starry space, the miniature book is angled in perspective like the opening text in the movie Star Wars — a pleasing confluence of pop culture. In the painting The Endless Summer, issues of National Geographic magazine lie scattered on a rag rug alongside a travel brochure by Ima Liar titled Africa on 9¢ a Month, a field-dressing guide for shark attacks, and a malaria manual —a narrative that braces against the “exotic” allure of travel.
Shepherd's work has a bit of the trompe l'oeil in it, but he paints in a purposefully naive, slightly messy style that reminds the viewer that art — including books, magazines, and music — is a human endeavor. Painting in miniature proves an effective choice for his subject matter. The miniature, like memory, condenses things. This is why miniaturization works as a commemorative form: It reduces objects to precious, bite-sized epitaphs. The irony of this is that while vintage books and ephemera may be considered as obsolete as the Green Beret, they're actually primed, through places like Adobe, to influence a whole new generation — and Shepherd is proof of this.