by David M. Roth
What is it about book art that makes it so compelling for creators and viewers? I have a theory. Altering a book in the service of art is essentially a transgressive act, a violation of The Word. To shred, cut-up, disassemble, reconfigure, excavate or sculpt a book is to defy all that we are taught about books being the embodiment of sacrosanct Knowledge. Why else would destroying them deliver so many unexpected pleasures?
Seager Gray Gallery has been bringing them to the public for more than a decade with its annual Art of the Book exhibition. That, in tandem with its other annual show, Materials Matter, outlines the broad contours of contemporary book art. While these shows typically skew toward craft, they also include, more substantively, abstract sculpture, narrative works from small presses and conceptual pieces that defy easy categorization.
The standouts in this exhibition of 24 artists are those who push their raw materials almost beyond recognition. Valérie Buess, a Swiss-born artist living in Germany, for example, collects scrap paper from a variety of sources and fashions it into things that look like they were hauled out of the sea. Andrew Hayes, a North Carolina artist who began as a welder before switching to art, makes exquisite minimalist objects out of paper and steel. Circuit contains hardly any paper at all, just a small, compressed swatch of it sandwiched between tubular lengths of steel to form a giant “chain” link. Emma Lloyd, from the U.K., sculpts a book into abstract shapes derived from Wingdings, a font you’d be hard pressed to identify without schooling in typography. She calls it Between and Beyond and maintains it’s about language; but what we see is perfect gibberish: craggy, cratered forms that more closely resemble a liquefied ruin seen from the sky. All that remains of the book that once was is the “gutter” running down the middle.
Like its predecessors, edition 12 of Art of the Book comes larded with literary surprises. The biggest is Foolscap Press’ handmade letterpress rendering of the Patricia Highsmith novel The Snails. In keeping with the story (and with the author’s predilection for the macabre), this version gives the gastropods fearsome powers they don’t possess in real life, and it unfolds, as you might expect, in a circular format. The New Orleans saxophonist and visual artist Tony
Dagradi creates narrative relief sculptures out of antiquarian books whose fantastical topography may remind you of similar excavations undertaken by Brian Dettmer. Like Dettmer, Dagradi turns books into stage sets that open up dimensionally, like pop-up books or stereoscopic photos, but without illusionism or moving parts.
Building on successful past forays into photography, the show also features gorgeously spare images from Mary Ellen Bartley; they show stacks of books, all white or off-white looking like what Morandi might have done had he taken up the camera.
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“The Art of the Book: Twelfth Annual Exhibition of Handmade Artist Books, Altered Books and Book-Related Materials” @ Seager Gray Gallery through May 28, 2017.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.