Film by Dylan Osborn. Tropos © Kevin Osborn, 2021.

Kevin Osborn.
Arlington, Virginia: Osbornbook, 1988. (22152)

Deluxe edition. Bridwell Library purchase, 1989. Signed by the artist on the title page.

Tropos is a book of turns, changes, and response, from the painterly manner of its production to the ways it is experienced in the hands, by the eyes, lips, and ears, and along the memory of the drama it projects. With pages folded at the fore edge and the spine supported and enclosed in a slotted dowel, the book stands on its own in resistance to closing and recumbency. Top and bottom edges were cut on the bias so the text block appears canted, a parallelogram when pressed closed, and a rhombus when held open. In this copy the dowel has been stained black, although in most the dowel remains raw pine. A display edition features an extended dowel mounted onto a base so that the book might be shown as a flag on a mast, or perhaps read as from a soapbox in a public square. A die-cut penetration through the text block reveals a pair of cobalt glass cabochons affixed inside the front and rear covers. Hand-mixed ink in thirty-seven colors saturates the sheets and is printed in separate color layers, sometimes blended on the offset roller of the press, that deepen with each overlay.

Artist Kevin Osborn (b. 1951) began work on Tropos in 1984 while he was a teacher in French West Africa and then continued to develop it for the next four years. His journals, drawings, and photographs that became a source for Tropos record his awareness not so much of an obvious social duality, but of the dynamic space he has occupied within superimposed cultural matrices. The book, a dialogue verso to recto, and a narrative from front to back, is a graphic unfurling of that fabric. The text also, alternately constrained and released, in language uttered gently, or drowned out in turbulence, stated in accusation, violence, or reconciliation is set in ordered rings consistent from page to page, particular words calling out in turn when so compelled.

The scene opens with slashing marks on the cover and front pages like trailing sparks or storm blown straw. A heart-shaped face from which the slashes emanate is discovered and the first of words and phrases appear, short textual arcs on concentric rings with other bits revealed on subsequent pages. A blue-lined space, a blue stream, and then monochromatic green palm trees set a tropical stage beneath a comet with furling tail. An archipelago of sea, earth, and the heavens, materializes within the limits of the open pages as well as the words, “OBEY STALE COLA HUNGER GROUND” and “FALL FROM SKY GARDEN.” References to dualities in opposition are made, the fluorescent yellow Ouroboroi intertwined, each consuming the other. Deep within die-cut tunnels the glass cabochons offer their blue glint to serve as eyes of silhouetted faces obscuring the isles. “WHEN ONCE UPON” seems to be the utterance of the verso character, while “NOT IF EVER AFTER DUAL” is the reply from the recto.

The next page brings an overlay to the red recto face of palm fronds, the earth, and sargassum, with a text “FALL FROM SKY” over a purple glove, “GARDEN,” “BODY GLUESS,” “REACH,” “HEAL CHATTER,” and “HEAR” encircling him. The debate continues reaching a stormy pinnacle where the verbs “HURL HURL HURL” are the silver overprint, and several pages later handprints obliterate the pair and the scene. In the end, “HURL” is opposed by “HEAL,” which wins out when the recto character is convinced. With the approval of ten purple gloved hands the atoning text “IN GODS ALIVE EMBRACE GLOSSY CLOSE” can be read. “YES NOW,” “HEAR NEWS IN PARTICULAR CHATTER,” “EVER AFTER HEAL,” is the reassuring benediction.

After working for a manufacturer of spectrographs and diffraction gratings, Kevin Osborn entered the École Nationale Supérieure d’Art in Nice as a student and created his first livres d’artiste in the early 1970s. He investigated offset lithography as an artistic medium, and rather than separating colors as in commercial printing he learned to use multiple impressions of hand-mixed inks, blending them on the offset press as in Tropos. While recognizing that his “artistic work process originates from a manufacturing environment” in which components that have been fabricated using a variety of means are assembled in production, Kevin Osborn explains that his approach “uses chance occurrences in the process to layer, discover, and create the final work.” He is more aligned to the sensibilities of a painter than to those of a printmaker or printer. 


Tropos, front cover.


Pages 2–3.


Pages 26–27.


Pages 34–35.


Pages 46–47.


Pages 66–67.


Pages 70–71. 


Pages 86–87.

Photography/Cinematography of Tropos by Anne-Catherine Fallen.
Tropos © Kevin Osborn, 2021.