In Jessica Drenk’s Cerebral Mapping III, for example, we see the carved remnants of a book sprawled across 10 linear feet of wall space. It resembles a kelp bed washed ashore. There are visible words, but you’d need to hang upside down with a magnifying glass to read them. The fluted edges of the chess pieces that comprise the Mexican artist’s Arian Dylan’s Order and Chaos could, for all we know, be made of pressed butterfly wings, so transformed is the source material. Likewise, the Canadian artist Guy Laramee’s Cold Mountain Poem, a tondo framed by two chunks of carved paper pulp, appears more like a geology lesson than the book-based dimensional re-creation of a Japanese watercolor painting that is. Andrew Hayes’ totemic Minimalist creations go further. Made of books bent into extreme contortions and locked into place with steel plates, they stand as resolutely formal sculptures, tabletop answers to the nonobjective works of Henry Moore. Emily Payne’s glued-together pages, sanded smooth like river rock, reveal faint traces of words, pointing to the process of decay that will someday turn them to dust.
Such assaults on the linear conventions of reading are the foundation of book art’s appeal. They toss authorial intent out the window and undermine the sanctity of the printed word, transgressing a value inculcated into every literate person during childhood. That indoctrination is what gives book art its subversive power, evidenced in varying degrees by the examples cited above. The only problem with this edition of the show is that too much of the work falls into the realm of craft, which, in the main, results in a lot of clever packaging of typography and graphics, though some artists who occupy that niche also transcend it.
Donna Ruff sets two books of French morality tales side by side and connects them with long paper tendrils that, at a distance, resemble a jumble of intertwined computer cables. I doubt that the debate about net neutrality was uppermost in the artist’s imagination when she created this piece, but to my eye the object serves as an apt metaphor for the messy legal arguments now shaping the electronic media frontier. Anyone familiar with dotcom-era décor will immediately recognize similarities between this object and those that littered the wire-strewn interiors of start-up companies from that period. I’d also guess that the thread artist Lisa Kokin wasn’t thinking about technology when she embedded zippers into a book-shaped skein spun to the size of a broadsheet. Yet her submission, History of the World, reminds me of diodes in a printed circuit board and, alternately, of an illuminated manuscript: a composition that flips back and forth between antiquity and modernity, recalling the work of Agnes Martin.
Indeed, if you find yourself in a state of oscillation while viewing this show, there's a very good reason: The artists themselves may be experiencing the same sensations, leaping back and forth between things that were originally printed and bound, and fresh creations, ripped and torn from things we once called books.
–DAVID M. ROTH