October 29, 2006

Taking a New Look at Books

Remember that new-book ritual, splaying the crisp spine and gently smoothing down, front and back, a few pages at a time? Remember the feel, the smell of those pristine pages? What is it about books? Why do we like not only to read them, but also to look at them, feel them, yes even smell them? We build public monuments and private altars to them and, as a current exhibit shows, we translate them into visual art.

“It’s another way to have a conversation about books, ” says Ronni Komarow, who organized “Beyond the Book: An Exhibit of Book Art and Collage,” at the Honan-Allston branch of the Boston Public Library. “And what better place than in a library?”

Komarow, herself a book artist who lives near the library, proposed the idea of a juried show as a way to draw attention to Allston’s growing arts community that will soon include Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, temporarily relocating a few blocks away during its building renovation. Branch librarian, Sarah Markell, was immediately enthusiastic.

Some of the exhibit’s works are recognizable as books, like Komarow’s own accordion book, “She Was Very Smart,” which gives voice to unheard family legend. Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord crafts “Spirit Books” of fabric, paper, and wood that open like large, wise dictionaries or hide in twig nests and embellished seed pods. In Tricia Jones’s “Trees Have Always Been My Friends,” a tiny book rests in a curl of bark, reminding us that early books were written on the natural materials at hand. Letters spelling out “mea culpa” reach from the pages of “Remorse” by Annie Zeybekoglu.

Other works have a freer take on the idea of books, like Tricia Neumyer’s “Self Portrait as Action Figure Trading Cards,” in which she appears as, among others, Naomi Armitage, “former police officer on Mars.” Squiggly shapes that cavort through Keith Maddy’s “Roll Over” remind me of the grasshopper that jumps through E.E. Cummings’s poem, “rpophessagr." A secret message hides in the sole of a shoe in “How They Brought the Word from Dailytown” by M. L. Van Nice. Jennifer Flores references the Day of the Dead tradition in “She’s Always Among Us.”

Many pieces are collages that incorporate text, like Ruth Segaloff’s idyllic and unsettling “Lost Boys” and Michal Rebibo’s enigmatic “Silent Heart” and “Silent Soul.” As a visual artist and writer, Betsy Showstack acknowledges the possibilities and limitations of the written word in her collage, “Words Cannot Say.” Likewise, Veronica Morgan, who describes herself as “torn between the two worlds,” is represented by “Hearth Goddess,” with its burnt offering of words, and “Homemaking,” in which words unseen in this exhibit underlie images of construction.

Though book art has a long history, it has become even more visible in the past decade. It’s possible all the discussion about the decline of the hard copy in favor of online reading has inspired this new proof that the iconic form still endures. At the very least, it is a way of seeing that something old can be new again and again.

“When one creates a work of (visual) art, the object becomes a crossroads for the artist and the public, a place for minds to connect,” says Maria Vitagliano, director of the Chamberlayne School of Design at Mt. Ida College, who, with her colleague Judith Veronesi, was a juror for the exhibit. “It’s just a little leap from there to treat a book as an art object and also push the boundaries of people’s common notion of what books are.”

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

My photo on the home page is by Peter Urban.
The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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