Words and images saturate our society. From newspapers, novels, and blogs to advertisements, artwork, and films, we organize our communications into verbal and visual mediums. What happens, then, when the two forms intersect? When text becomes image; when image occupies the structure of a book?
“Anatomy of the Book,” a book arts show currently on display at the Fleisher Art Memorial’s Suzanne Fleisher and Ralph Joel Roberts Gallery, considers this melding of text and image. Four local book artists, Carol Barton, Hedi Kyle, Tom Leonard, and Mary Phelan, present an assortment of works – both art books and illustrations – that covers traditional bookmaking, printmaking, and drawing techniques while also exploring uniquely creative interpretations of the book form.
Carol Barton’s “Alphabetica Synthetica” begins with a standard definition of “synthetic” and then continues with an alphabetical listing of absurd vocabulary related to artificiality. A is for “Alterations, Animations, Acetate Assimilations,” with the culturally cunning list continuing all the way through to “Y2K” and “Zooplastic Zombies.” Each spread contains a pop-up square of the letters represented, giving the impression of wooden building blocks emerging out of the crevices. Printed on pastel-colored accordion-fold pages, this bizarre primer combines the crisp appearance of a child’s learn-to-read book with an obscure text that clearly requires adult recognition and humor.
Another playful book, Mary Phelan’s “Exquisite Horse, a Printer’s Corpse” creates fantastical animals by pairing a page showing a hypothetical back-half of an animal with another page showing an equally unexpected front-half. The example on display matches the back-side of a horse – skeleton showing through transparent skin, tail created out of text – with a front-side diagram of a man inside a huge clown puppet. Although subsequent pages are not visible, the format suggests transition, changeability, as pages could potentially be rearranged to construct myriad organisms.
Many of the pieces distort traditional assumptions about books by cutting out parts of pages or adding protruding elements, requiring a three-dimensional “reading.” Hedi Kyle’s “CFBL Fold” provides physical examples of various paper-folding techniques, inserting the samples among the printed pages. She uses very little text, relying instead on the real-life demonstrations of the actual folded paper in this pseudo-instruction manual. Carol Barton’s “Tunnel Map” takes a series of round maps, positions them parallel to each other, cuts holes through the centers, and inserts drawings of familiar landforms – ocean waves, grassy hills, rocky mountains. For the full effect, the viewer must peer through the holes to view the overlapping layers of landscapes. The round, unmoving pages and three-dimensionality expand typical definitions of “book” while maintaining the distinct pagination and sense of information-sharing common to ordinary reading.
Not just books, the exhibition also showcases vibrant flora and fauna illustrations by Tom Leonard and exploratory photographs and drawings by Mary Phelan. These two-dimensional works isolate critical elements of bookmaking, while also helping position the books in their broader context of the visual arts.
Unfortunately (and somewhat understandably), nothing can be touched, so the tactile pleasure of flipping through a book remains elusive. Entire pages stay hidden, and any sense of narrative or continuity or discovery disappears in the immobility of the pages. If only book arts shows could find a display option that functions somewhere between a library and a gallery, allowing for increased viewer interaction with this necessarily tangible art form. Although your eyes will enjoy the text-image feast, your fingers might twitch in anticipation of turning to the next page.
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin, October 16, 2007