Scrolling the Page
by Carol Pulin
Catalogue text for the exhibition, reprinted from Contemporary Impressions, The Journal of the American Print Alliance, vol. 7 #2, Fall 1999.
The American Print Alliance sponsored a competition and is showing the results as an internet exhibition of artists' books to amplify Turning the Page, a celebration of the book as art in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in September 1999. Scrolling the Page offers a useful survey of what's happening in the print and book arts and how the book is being redefined, presenting an exceptional educational resource to the world.
Artists from around the world were
encouraged to enter the competition, which was free. There were
only two requirements: that the book was created in the last three
years and that it meet the artist's own definition of an "original
artist's book." Images of the books were submitted as slides,
computer disks and CDs, even web site addresses. The internet exhibition
shows more than seventy images representing the twenty-four
books selected by curators Daniel Piersol (Curator of Prints &
Drawings, New Orleans Museum of Art) and myself.
I thought it would be fun and instructive to show an exhibition of artists' books on the internet, to compare "old" and "new" modes in the exhibition and in its presentation. Books in all their forms, from scroll to codex, are an ancient way of packaging written and pictorial knowledge, in contrast to the electronic media, our most contemporary format. Books and computers share a peculiar combination of intimacy and publicity, for each encounter is typically private and personal, one reader/viewer at a time. Yet these are also expressly public media, designed so that their packets of images and information, pictures and text, can be passed along and shared among dozens, hundreds, thousands of people. The idea of the printed edition of a book implies that its many copies can be seen and read at the same time, while the internet boasts that untold thousands of computer screens have simultaneous individual access.
Although the Alliance intended to show this exhibition only on the internet, almost immediately opportunities appeared for "real live" shows. Sixteen books were hastily assembled to debut August 25 to September 30, 1999, at the Barnes and Noble Gallery in Baton Rouge, where my illustrated talk drew an audience of faculty and students from Louisiana State University, a scattering of culture consumers from the city and a continually increasing number of bookstore browsers enchanted by the fascinating objects on display. This travelling exhibition [was next shown] November 4 to 14, 1999, at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Savannah, Georgia, overlapping with the Alliance's third annual Printmaking Dialogue Day.
Although books generally speak for themselves, a closer look at a few examples from the exhibition may help explain the exceptional diversity of subjects, themes, formats and techniques represented. Start with the bright crimson "A"s floating among the Scrabble tiles of William Harroff's snowglobe book-object, The New Scarlet Letter. Capturing our attention, they force a new reading of this literally deconstructed text with all its associated references. With a quite different strategy, Leah Mayers used the traditional genre of an alphabet book to disguise a commentary on contemporary life. 26 Jobs Left Undone: A Procrastinator's Abecedarium, takes us from Art unarticulated to Yearnings unfulfilled and Zenith unreached as the artist adds colorful puzzle pieces, page by page, until they engulf the words and us.
Several books depend upon the interactive aspects of their unusual structures to lead the reader-viewer into their conceptual core. Roberta Lavadour's Harvest Moon is a tunnel book, requiring an active participant to pull apart the enclosure and peer through the single opening to see into its heart of handmade paper, birch twigs and printed vellum. Fresnel's Tower by Charles Hobson invites its reader to construct a tower in honor of the inventor. Nested in the box are cardboard cylinders covered outside with handpainted paper with reproductions of 17th-century lighthouse diagrams and, inside, monotypes of clouds and seascapes; divider cards of mirrored mylar are printed with text and, finally, a small booklet contains photogravures with pastel. Conversely (though strangely more like opening a traditional, narrative book), Michael Jacobs invites the reader to disassemble his Triangle Pyramid B.O.O.K. Opening the signatures of paper and blotters and ultimately unscrewing the metal bolts, one is left with the sequential experience of the book's deconstruction.
The concept of "scrolling" through the information on a computer screen is a direct transfer from the unrolling of an earlier book form. A miniature scroll is an excellent choice for the panoramas in Four Views of Kealakekua Bay by Peter and Donna Thomas. They are also responsible for Pandora's Box, a tiny wooden box whose tightly wound text springs out as the lid is opened, perfectly suited to the idea (and not so easy to return to its container, despite careful directions from the artists). Meanwhile, Diana Kleiner plays on the scientific and cultural associations of an intriguingly simple double spiral for the iconic figures in Iguol y Diferente XIII [Same and Different].
The almost-standard codex form used by Ann Kalmbach and Tatana Kellner (a.k.a. KAKE) for Pistol/Pistil - Botanical Ballistics, does have smaller pages and envelopes bound in. Every page spread exhibits a different and engaging layout designed for the particular word play of that shrewd text. Slugs are both those slimy creatures that destroy one's garden and metal bullets. March is defined by a phalanx of soldiers who march and trample leading, of course, to squash, a dried slice of which is enclosed in a translucent envelope. A variety of papers, including mango, enliven Deborah Bryan's Chicken Prints, whose intaglio prints and laser text are bound in an accordion with a piano-hinge structure and walnut hinge pin. The copper claws of the meticuluously-crafted binding are perfectly formed chicken's feet fun, and exactly appropriate.
The pop-ups of Emily Martin's I Live in Iowa are charming and simple to go with the subject, though a variety of pastepapers, flax and rag papers create the houses and snowdrifts, floods, sun and fields, tornado and more houses. House shapes are not unusual in artists' books, perhaps because so many are autobiographical. That's certainly true of Susan Hensel's My House. The text is printed over an old snap-shot of the house repeated on each page and the accordion book is cut to fit the house-shaped box. Another personal book, Shireen Holman's Memories of My Father has only a single page-spread, but with lots of little booklets tucked into pockets to add details and help tell the domestic story. The handmade papers include bits of old hand-woven fabric from her parents' home in India, with the embroidered design incorporated into the woodcuts and a small remaining piece of fabric in each book.
?Preston Lawing chose the classic format of a text page facing a virtuoso print (each of a different kind of glove, worn by a different person) for the stories and reminiscences in Chucklehead's White Mules. But the borrowed texts of Sarah Stengle's Decline each face the same classic column oddly expressive of the end of the millenium.
Kez van Oudheusden's books await collaboration with an unknown, as yet un-met reader/writer. A natural flaw in the kangaroo vellum which binds Vellum Journal holds bits of calla lily and bullrush paper. Inside, the first page has a marbled insert, the rest of the handmade banana leaf, lily, palm and fig leaf papers are empty. Silken Thoughts encloses handmade paper with a classic binding covered in handpainted silk embellished with beads; some pages have insets of marbled paper and found objects encased in net (a tiny snakeskin, beads, shells, small stones), perhaps inspiration for the other, blank pages.
An electronic book by Lyn Bishop, A Digital Artist: On the Road in China, skips the paper entirely: it's available as a CD and on the internet, where the pages are displayed at the size of the viewer's computer screen and the edition is unlimited. Taking advantage of the format, viewers may choose to see many of the digital photographs taken during the artist's trip to mainland China and read about the elements selected for her final images: coins, gates, masks, a basket of onions, temple banners, ferns and flowers, seals and calligraphy. The artist explains the sources of ideas and how the images were selected and combined, superimposed and altered to fit her impressions of the landscape, cities, rain and fields, architecture and people.
Although many books selected for this exhibition seem to be missing one or more components that we normally associate with the book (most often, a printed text), each artist creatively uses materials and techniques which enhance the experience and help express the book's subject or theme and each presents a directed, if not entirely determined, "narrative" sequence of visual imagery that expands the viewer's knowledge and understanding of the world.
More on artists' books, book objects, the question of definitions, text and other topics in previous issues of Contemporary Impressions, by artists and writers including Buzz Spector, Johanna Drucker, Susan King, Thomas Vogler, William Fick, Judy Stone-Nunneley and Charles Hobson.
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American Print Alliance director and Contemporary Impressions editor, Dr. Carol Pulin often curates exhibitions of prints and works on paper, but this was the first selected specifically to show on the internet. The internet exhibition design is by Jennifer Landefeld, formerly of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA and now operations manager at Panasas, LLC.