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After a Fashion

written and illustrated by Leanne Shapton

A dispatch from our Art Editor on the art and illustrations in the Review’s May 9 and May 23 issues.

This newsletter comes to you from a wild jungle: designer Rachel Comey’s annual sample sale. For a certain New York fashion set, this is a legendary event: past sales have featured a live DJ, Jell-O shots and childcare, and enormous markdowns on racks upon racks of beautiful dresses, blouses, snoods, and mules. (In 2022 Comey designed a collection based on the Review’s covers.) It is a scene. Shoppers in various states of undress and carrying enormous blue Ikea bags flick voraciously through the racks. There are friends vying for room in front of full-length mirrors and friends shopping for friends. Fellow shoppers offer unsolicited compliments and opinions, then swoop in to snatch droppings and second-guesses. After reading the galleys from our Fiction Issue (which will be published online next Thursday), I stopped by the sale with my daughter, saying “no, no, no” to everything she pleadingly held up, happy to treat the excursion as a design field trip for her and a figure-study class for me. But I finally caved and bought her a T-shirt.

The cover discussion for our June 6 issue was an unusual one. I was eager to reference Peter Godfrey-Smith’s piece on animal consciousness, so I began searching for paintings of bears, dogs, and marsupials. When I described the essay to my animal-loving boyfriend, he suggested I try to get artwork made by a nonhuman. I found some bright, energetic paintings done by Congo the chimpanzee in the mid-1950s, and presented them without telling the editors the species of the artist until we’d narrowed the options down to three. “This meeting feels like a New Yorker cartoon,” one editor deadpanned. Congo died in 1959, but he is represented by a London gallery.

For Larry Rohter’s review of Itamar Vieria Junior’s novel Crooked Plow, translated from the Portuguese, I asked the Argentine illustrator Sol Cotti, who last painted Samanta Schweblin for us. Ruth Margalit’s review of Great Expectations by Vinson Cunningham gave me a chance to write to Yann Kebbi, whose always captures an uncanny likenesses of his subjects, with his blue ballpoint pen.

We published Fintan O’Toole’s introduction to his recently reissued Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life, and I asked John Broadley to illustrate it. He sent us a depiction of the Bard surrounded by the keening protagonists of his tragedies. When I read Godfrey-Smith’s review of three books on the subject of animal perception, I immediately thought of a series by the art photographer Ed Panar. Called “Animals that Saw Me,” the photographs show animals making direct eye contact with Panar, connecting across landscape and genus. The editors and I chose images of a squirrel, a cat up a tree, three sheep in the mist, and a seal peering over the waterline.

I wrote to Paolo Ventura after I read Rachel Donadio’s essay on Giorgia Meloni and the precarity of Italy’s economic and cultural institutions. He sent a series of subtly doctored postcard images of Rome, eerily illustrating the fascist ideas of Italianità that Meloni upholds, for us to choose from. 

The series art in both this issue and in the June 20 issue were done by Nicholas Blechman, the creative director of The New Yorker who is also an illustrator and designer in his own right. The four pieces that appear in the June 6 issue are titled “Disconnections,” while the series that continues in the June 20 issue is titled “Connections.”

The futility and hope implicit in these words somehow reflect the most urgent essay in the June 6 issue, Aryeh Neier’s question: “Is Israel Committing Genocide?” This essay we chose to illustrate with a photograph of clothing recovered from a morgue in Bosnia, part of “Farewell to Bosnia,” a series of documentary pictures by the French photographer Gilles Peress.

For the cover of our June 20 issue—the University Press Issue—I looked up work by the great Los Angeles–based painter Henry Taylor. His portraits and murals, their people and settings, feel like they’re in touch with a range of time periods. We settled on a 2016 painting of a woman in a yellow hat, titled yellow cap sunday.

While I try not to assign the same illustrator two issues in a row, I was already breaking my rule with Blechman’s series art, and I thought Catherine Nicholson’s review of two books about the culture and economics of reading during the Renaissance was so perfect for John Broadley that I had to write to him again. I love having a stable of brilliant illustrators whose work the editors look forward to and the readers can associate with our pages.

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I asked Maya Chessman if she could make an illustration of the writer and former nun Catherine Coldstream for Megan O’Gieblyn’s review of Codstream’s memoir. Chessman’s habited, pink-cheeked portrait sets the stage for an essay about a forthright woman caught between the secular and spiritual worlds. For Adom Getachew’s review of three books by Louis Chude-Sokei about life in the African diaspora, Lorenzo Gritti drew the writer set against the Atlantic Ocean, an expanse that Getachew movingly recalls gazing across from Trinidad, looking toward her birthplace in Ethiopia.

Edel Rodriguez has drawn several rugged men for us—Phil Klay, Francisco Goldman, and Anton Shammas, to name a few—so he quickly came to mind for a portrait of Charles Portis, for Jonathan Lethem’s review of two books about the Arkansan novelist.

I’d seen “The Last Safe Abortion,” a photographic installation by the artist and writer Carmen Winant, at the Whitney Biennale shortly before reading Christine Henneberg’s essay on the state of the procedure since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Images from Winant’s book of the project, which she collected from the archives of abortion clinics and providers, provided the right sense of documentary evidence and archaism that the essay evoked.

For Linda Greenhouse’s review of Lawrence Ralph’s new book, Sito: An American Teenager and the City That Failed Him, I asked the illustrator Michelle Mildenberg for an oblique portrait of the book’s subject, Luis Alberto Quiñonez. Mildenberg wrote to tell me that she focused on “the individual life of the character, among the systemic and repetitive pattern of the gang.”

My daughter wore her sample sale T-shirt with pride, and as she watched me paint my impressions of the people we saw—dreaming and constructing versions of themselves—she said, “You’re not showing how crazy it is!” She was right; people have been known to actually lose their pants in the chaos of trying clothes on at the Comey sale. I left out the piles of clothes on the gymnasium floor, the bags and racks full of beautiful items, the shrieks and gushing and deliberating mayhem, to isolate the bending half-bare bodies, mid-self-portrait.

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