REVIEW: Under Cover: An Exhibition of Artists' Books

By Teresa Zbiciak

Under Cover: An Exhibition of Artists' Books, a juried show with artists from throughout the nation, is currently on display in the UICA’s Monroe St Gallery. For such a seemingly specific category, there is enormous variety. If there is, in fact, the idea of a Book resting in the imaginary universe of Forms, it had no direct route of manifestation here. Artists variably referenced, questioned, redefined, destroyed, or transformed any conservative notions of book-ness.

Much like sitting down with any good book, the exhibition takes a fair bit of time to really appreciate. A "gallery stroll" would miss the point. There is no effective way to stand back from the work, with cocked hip and hand on chin, and claim to really understand what is going on, as perhaps we have taught is appropriate for large paintings or sculptures. Though some of the works expand to fill a substantial wall space, images and text are small enough to command close proximity.

I personally find myself drawn into these works in a way that I am unaccustomed to in galleries. Perhaps it is the personal interaction we infer when regarding books that makes gallery interaction so compelling. The act of reading is a private one, evoking one's own minds eye to open and perceive the ideas, while the physical eye informs them. White gloves accompany many of the works, adding another source of sensory information. In a place where we have come to expect our sense of touch to be "deaf dumb and blind" and therefore irrelevant, the tactile aspects of these books are magnified.

Some of the books have been smashed or otherwise destroyed, emphasizing their object-hood as opposed to their capacity for content. A few books were transformed into solid structures, referencing other works of art such as Salvidor Dali crutches holding up a book on Surrealism. Even more obscure is the reference in Steve Panella's Passages in Post-Modern Sculpture. Stringing the words of the book through it and over the pedestal onto the floor clearly mimics Daniel Buren's Within and Beyond the Frame, a work emphasizing the postmodern trend to take art outside of the gallery walls by stringing flags through the window of the John Weber Gallery and down into the streets of New York.

Text often has this same solidifing effect as making a sculpture or painting out of a book. For though its readability is enticing, it often has been disseminated into a vastness and nonlinearity that impedes its legibility. Notably, Emily Tubergen's The Forgotten Years transforms the very wall into a dimensional ripple of decontextualized words: the shadows and dark of the ink playing optical tricks as it flows beautifully out from the center and far above the viewers range of readable sight. There is a playful push and pull between the content of a book and the artist’s obsessive act of placement.

Cutting out words was a method that several artists chose in their interactions with the book, though this too led to no common conclusions. For example, Sean Miller has used this method to literally consume his book. Though this is not completely clear through the photographs of his "private performance" an article describes his project in the front of the gallery. Beginning in February 2004, he has gridded and selectively cut out and eaten small rectangles of George W. Bush's book A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House in a way that suspiciously resembles a "hanging chad" ballot. "I have eaten most of the book raw, although I do occasionally include pieces of the book with Bologna sandwiches or with tacos. These are foods that George W mentioned he enjoys."

Some of the book-works still function as books, especially those that were constructed, rather than transformed. Their contents tend to talk about moral issues, ahistory, or narrative. Their display and their uniqueness, however, relegates their contents to a secondary concern. Masses of words especially tend to blur into the idea of words. Attention passes back and forth between regarding the books as objects of utility and objects of superficial aesthetic contemplation.

Katherine Stine, in works such as Antik and Wound Repair, seems to take this limitation into mind, only highlighting certain words or phrases. Her selection and embellishment gives a sense of rhythm, through repeated words as well as the structure of the pages, and her additional ornamentation. She creates something new, and pulls the book as content into a place between two and three dimensionality. Her focus is on the allure of old books, explaining that "The grace of a gilt-stamped title or the blunted softness of a well worn corner can attract as much as the text inside..." A statement which seems to apply to many of the artists and their audiences.

On the contrary, some artists made objects that referenced the idea of book-ness, but remained somewhat autonomous to existing books. Tiny sewn panel-skirts as leaves of information, or a sci-fi scroll blending ancient with futuristic, or those intriguingly conceived analog presentations of digitally recorded information serve as examples of this trend. Transcending the barriers between the nebulous Internet and the solidity of analog books is an issue LAMB takes to heart, and it is interesting to see these here.

Sara J. Wassonaar's Object Exchange project gave way to what she called a "digital flipbook" of photos taken over the course of a month. Pat Badan's Home Transfer is a physical documentation of a dialogue that took place purely on the Internet. With only out of context sentence fragments, the intentional omission of a specific subject comes together through a complicatedly simplistic flipping process. (It’s tricky until you get the hang of it.) The project is interestingly dynamic, because there is an ongoing digital interaction of seeming anonymity on, yet those comments to date have been put into a public place of particular attention. The presentation gives a sense of unexpected intimacy with these strangers, since often their e-mail or webpage is included and suggest the possibility of continued interaction.

Perhaps interaction (or the prevention of interaction) is the name of the game, when it comes to books. However, if there is one thing that this show achieves, it is the annihilation of any definition or limitation of the book. In an age where the "paperless society" seems an inevitably forthcoming promise, paying attention to our interaction and perception of books seems an appropriate way to spend a few hours.

Posted on October 8, 2006 7:17 PM


Wasn't that Elizabeth Tubergen? Not Emily.

Posted by: Marcy on October 28, 2006 6:47 PM

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