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Creating Books With a Presence : Small Publisher of Pricey Limited Editions Takes Pride in Being 'Visually Odd and Voluptuous'

September 12, 1993|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENICE — Robert Shapazian runs his hands lovingly over the dust jacket of "Albucius," a recent title from the Venice-based Lapis Press.

Written in the voice of a perverse patrician in ancient Rome, the text is illustrated with strange, erotic photos, including the dust-jacket photo of a nude woman lashed to the back of a horse. The result is a book that Shapazian proudly describes as "visually odd and voluptuous."

In Shapazian's enthusiastically unorthodox view, odd is devoutly to be wished. Founded a decade ago by artist Sam Francis, Lapis Press publishes limited-edition artists' books, lovingly printed books of poetry and other titles. But books like "Albucius"--evocatively illustrated short fictions and collections of essays--are Shapazian's special passion. He typically chooses the texts, finds the vintage photographs that often illustrate them and works with designer Jeffrey Mueller, illustrator Toni Zeto and others to create objects that transcend the Supercrown notion of what constitutes a book.

The result, Shapazian says, "are books with an unusual degree of presence."

Printed in small numbers--3,000 is a typical run--the books are not for everyone. The texts tend to be difficult, even obscure. Post-modernist is as good a way as any to describe most of them. Lapis regularly publishes the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard, for instance, a writer esteemed in France, but little-known in this country (although he teaches part of the year at UC Irvine).

Much of the work is experimental, often in the spirit of the surrealists whose essays are collected in one Lapis book, "The Surrealists Look at Art." In the spirit of the wonderful folks who gave you melting watches, the back cover of that volume features a floating eyeball.

"These books are for people who are both textually and visually aware and literate," said Shapazian, 43.

One fan is writer Susan Sontag, whose own work tends to be more challenging than accessible. When Shapazian asked her if she would write a blurb for "Albucius," she revealed that she loved the book and had already bought not one, but two copies, the second to replace one she had given to a friend. She described the text as extraordinary and added, "the Lapis Press 'Albucius' is an incomparable achievement of bookmaking."

Lapis books, which are sold at Book Soup and other local bookstores but not in chain stores, tend to be pricey. "Albucius" sells for $40, for instance. But, remarkably, the press is in the black. As Shapazian explains, its art books sell well enough to underwrite its more experimental titles.

Any day now, the press will release "Lesson of Darkness," which features reproductions of 41 works by Sam Francis, accompanied by short meditations by Lyotard. The book was produced with the greatest care, a Lapis hallmark. Since some of the works feature an unusual shade of blue pigment that Francis mixed himself, a special blue ink was made to reproduce just the right blue. "It's a shade of blue you can't get in the regular four-color process," Shapazian said. The book will sell for $65.

The press has also produced a new limited edition by William Wegman, entitled "A Field Guide to North America and to Other Regions." Wegman, best known for photos of his charismatic dogs, has created 20 portfolios of photos, original drawings and other materials for Lapis. Each of the sets, which comes in a handmade wooden box, is on the theme of the American backwoods, and each is slightly different. Open the box and you find the contents wrapped in red-and-black checked fabric of the sort lumberjacks favor. The table of contents is on birch bark harvested on Wegman's property in Maine. Some versions contain a recipe for roast beaver.

The Wegman, however unusual, will underwrite a lot of books. It sells for $17,500. The work has already been bought by the Getty, the New York Public Library and a number of private collectors, Shapazian said. Only five have not yet been spoken for.

Shapazian, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on pastoral poetry and painting in the Renaissance, has had careers as a collector of avant-garde photography and as a businessman.

He joined Lapis seven years ago. Francis, "being a very visual person, sets the tone" of the enterprise, Shapazian said.

As the publishing house's director and art director, Shapazian seems to be having an extraordinarily good time, engaged simultaneously in achieving something of the very highest quality and something amusing, if not downright playful. His work is filled with meticulous touches that only the most informed reader-viewer will ever notice, let alone appreciate. Lyotard's study of Marcel Duchamp, for instance, is covered in green velour, the same material Duchamp used for his famous 1934 work, "The Green Box."

Shapazian, who lived in Paris and was recently named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government, has a cosmopolitan view of literature and the visual arts. But he increasingly finds that all roads, at least in the avant-garde, converge on Los Angeles.

He recalls seeing a nude on a French magazine cover and thinking it would make a perfect illustration for the press's edition of Lyotard's experimental L.A. novel, "Pacific Walls." When Shapazian called Paris to find out who the photographer was, he discovered the lensman was Stephen Hicks, who lives a mile or so from the Lapis office in Venice.

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