Printed and bound in an edition of 7 copies, of which this is No. 4 and signed. Carbon paper pressure prints from collograph plates, pochoir and silkscreen on Kozo. Bound in four-hole Japanese stab binding covered in black/white Duo cloth with doublures of Arches Cover Black. Encased in Arches Cover Black, two pieces glued perpendicularly, one trimmed to form a slot and tab closing. Encasement H197 x W153 mm. Book H193 x W152 mm closed and H193 x 1007 mm open.
If we were looking for a “Banksy” version of Rachid Koraïchi, we need look no further than eL Seed.
In my new project ‘Perception’ I am questioning the level of judgment and misconception society can unconsciously have upon a community based on their differences.
In the neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasr in Cairo, the Coptic community of Zaraeeb collects the trash of the city for decades and developed the most efficient and highly profitable recycling system on a global level. Still, the place is perceived as dirty, marginalized and segregated.
To bring light on this community, with my team and the help of the local community, I created an anamorphic piece that covers almost 50 buildings only visible from a certain point of the Moqattam Mountain. The piece of art uses the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic Bishop from the 3rd century …. el Seed
The words of Saint Athanasius referred to above are
‘إن أراد أحد أن يبصر نور الشمس، فإن عليه أن يمسح عينيه’
“Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.”
As with Camus, Algerian sunlight is strong in eL Seed’s work. As it also is in Koraïchi’s Lettres d’ Argile (Letters of Clay) and other ceramic works and arguably in the copperplates for Les Sept Dormants. As with Koraïchi’s work, humanism, poetry and bridging cultures are strong in eL Seed’s work.
The pseudonymous artist has created more “straightforward” street art installations in Tunisia, New York, Rio de Janeiro and Paris, all marked by the curvilinear linking of word and image that so often characterizes inspired book art. This reverse ekphrasis that book art frequently plays upon literature is heightened by calligraphy’s tight binding of art and craft to text. Perception‘s anamorphic enhancement of this binding is brilliant.
The relationship between word and image is “antagonistic sympathy”, according to the English book artist Telfer Stokes (“The Why and How I Make Books“, JAB 3, Spring 1995). In the hands and eyes of Koraïchi and eL Seed, the relationship — if it is a struggle, an agon — becomes more that of sunlight on water, or wind through a wheat field.
In addition to the installations and his book Lost Walls chronicling his painting of 24 walls in 4 weeks during a journey through Tunisia, eL Seed has produced a colorful body of lithographs and sculpture.
In this sculptural work inspired by a poem from Nizar Qabbani, el Seed says his intention is to invite the viewer to walk through a “conversation between the poem, the language, the form and me”. This may remind you of the influence that northern Africa had on the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, and how it led to his meditative exhortation to architects in The Eyes of the Skin to pursue a visual experience that offers a tactile and haptic quality, that also appeals to the realms of hearing, smell and taste and yet does not neglect the conceptual and rational. That, too, characterizes inspired book art.
Likewise it is interesting how this lithograph and the “calligraffiti” appearing on those broken walls and buildings touch eloquently on another theme characteristic of much book art — how the passage of time touches us, how we try to touch the passage of time.
The year 2019 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ximena Pérez Grobet’s Nowhereman Press. To celebrate, she has issued the catalogue below illustrating twenty-five of her works. (Books On Books declares a treble interest, having provided twenty-five words for the opening page and owning two of the works in the catalogue.)
The catalogue itself demonstrates this artist’s ingenious engagement with what the critic Gérard Genette called “seuils” or the “thresholds” of the book — its features such as cover, binding, edges, the page, title page, preface, index, colophon, typography, printings, etc., that make up “this fringe at the unsettled limits that enclose with a pragmatic halo the literary work” (quoted by Richard Macksey in his preface to Genette’s Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. xvii).
For example, the catalogue opens right-ward rather than left-ward — despite the false hint to open it left-ward given by the “almost” quarter-paperbound appearance of the front cover. Inside is the catalogue’s true spine, with its externalised sewing. Turning the inner cover and first page to the left reveals that each recto landscape page holds a photo of a double-page spread from one of the twenty-five works.
These are the catalogue’s first reminders of Pérez Grobet’s playful embrace of the “book” as her chosen form of art. Only a few pages in, though, and her serious — political, thoughtful and philosophical —side shows itself. The page above shows the first and last pages from 2.10.1968 – 2.10.2018 (2018), which commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre that occurred in Mexico City.
The work Dis-Cover (2019) pictured above and below exhibits Pérez Grobet’s play with the paratext of the book — in this case, select two- and three-dimensional aspects of the book: the cover, fore-edge and double-page spread. The title splitting across the French fold opening enacts one pun while the trompe l’oeil effect inside, done with the simplest of papers and bindings, enacts another.
Another and richer example of the depth of Pérez Grobet’s work is words (2016). In its colophon, she makes a statement that is both finishing touch and starting point to words: “The word is possible considering the space of the letter.” Rather than follow the tradition of the “fine press” edition, Pérez Grobet appropriates Wallace Stevens’ poem “The house was quiet and the world was calm”, breaks it into lines and letters, and creates an original work of book art.
In depicting a reader becoming “the book”, speaking its words “as if there was no book” and wanting to be “The scholar to whom his book is true”, Stevens’ poem seeks to lead us to “The access of perfection to the page”: a state of mind and situation. The state of mind is that in which the truth of meaning is as much a pose, perception and act of the body as it is of the mind. The situation is the threshold of object and subject, of being and the possibility of meaning, where the summer night we feel is “like the conscious being of the book” and where the act of perceiving meaning is simply being there, “leaning late and reading there”.
Pérez Grobet’s work challenges the reader/viewer to re-enact this. As the pages turn, the poem explodes into letters scattered across the recto pages. The letters “T”, “h” and “e” that first separately appear suggest a linear decomposition — a letter by letter representation of the poem. But “The” is followed by “o”, other random letters and even a comma — each dispersed in different patterns across its allocated page.
What’s more, the seemingly indecipherable book can be opened in more than one direction and read. Along the mountain folds of the open spine, the poem appears line by line.
Book or object, which way to read it? Which way to open it? Whichever way, the texture of the Cordenons paper combines with that traditional font of the periodic table (Helvetica) to provide a reassuring background for the mental and tactile challenge.
As an object — in its structure and its placement of text, especially Stevens’ text — words embodies both the sense of Pérez Grobet’s statement in the colophon and the sense of the poem. The possibility of meaning (the word) rests in the space of the letter and at the threshold between the physical and idealised fact of the cover, spine and page, on the one hand, and our physical and mental acts as readers/viewers, on the other.
The catalogue has twenty-two more works — equally engaging with different structures, colors, papers, type, techniques and content. More than enough to warrant another solo exhibition, and as always with book art, the challenge will be how to let the readers/viewers engage with the possibilities before them.
This tale comes from J. S. Kennard’s short 1901 tome on the colophon — that last page at the end of a manuscript or book. The colophon has served many purposes: giving the title of the work, identifying the scribe or printer, naming the place and date of completion or imprint, thanking and praising the patron, bragging, blaming, apologizing, entreating, praying and much more. Examples can be traced back to clay tablets and forward to websites.
Its presence on websites may be one of those decried skeuomorphic hangovers from book publishing, but perhaps the colophon has an underlying value or purpose to serve in both the analogue and digital worlds. The late Bill Hill, who wrote the 1999 Microsoft white paper “The Magic of Reading” and was an early contributor to online typography, suggested making colophons a compulsory standard for website design and asked:
Why not introduce the venerable concept of the colophon to the Web? Could it be used to drive a new business model for fonts which would benefit the font industry, web developers and designers – and the people who visit their sites?[Sadly this page at the Bill Hill’s site is no longer available.]
Fanciful? Perhaps, but not much more fanciful than Erasmus’ proffered explanation of the word “colophon”. His expanded edition of Adagia printed by Manutius in 1508 includes this adage:
Colophonemaddidit He added the colophon. This came to be used when the finishing touch is added to something, or when some addition is made without which a piece of business cannot be concluded. The origin of the adage is pointed out by Strabo in … his Geography, …
And here is Strabo from the Loeb Classical Library online:
As venerable a publishing custom as the colophon may be, it is more honoured in the breach than the observance. Book artists tend to be more observant, but not religiously so, and of course some works of book art might be disfigured by a colophon. Still, there are sound reasons why book artists should bother themselves with a colophon — even if it stands apart from the work. In her review of Book Artists and Artists Who Make Books (2017), India Johnson gives one of those sound reasons:
It’s probably impossible to include every detail of production in a colophon—but some give it their best stab, exhaustively listing everyone that took part in a project. More concise colophons recap only the most relevant details of making—perhaps those the primary creator feels will factor saliently into making meaning of the book.
The convention of the colophon in our field exposes an assumption that the meaning of an artwork is informed not only by the finished product, but by the specifics of artistic labor. “Book Artists and Artists Who Make Books“, CBAA, 1 October 2018. Accessed 3 October 2018.
If craft does figure in a work’s meaning, then the more we can see how it figures, the greater our ability to appreciate and understand the work. For conveying insight — what materials and from what sources, what processes, what tools, who contributed, where and when the work occurred — the colophon stands ready. But where does it stand?
A contemporary of Kennard, A.W. Pollard declared that, to be a proper colophon, it had to appear at the conclusion or summit of the work. Artful as are some of the manuscripts and books that Kennard and Pollard cite, none push the envelope in the manner that works of contemporary book art do. Which brings us to another reason for book artists to consider the colophon: inspiration from history or tradition.
The last page of the codex may be a rightful spot for placing the codex, but what if the bookwork’s shape is challenging or musing about the shape of the book? Finishing touches might go anywhere. Think of Van Eyck’s self-portrait hidden in a reflection in The Arnolfini Portrait, or that of Vélazquez in Las Meninas.
Historians’ diligent cataloging of the “hands” of the scribes has enriched the self-identifications in colophons and connected those craftspersons with additional manuscripts. Book artists who use calligraphy or involve calligraphers should ponder the implications of this tool historians use to identify scribes by the style of their “hands”.
What potential, meaningful “tells” in a work’s colophon might the book artist or calligrapher leave to enrich the work — and provide insights for historians and connoisseurs poring over the finishing touch?
The colophon’s underlying value or purpose warrants book artists’ thinking about recording it offline and online, though this might be stretching the definition of the colophon. Our enjoyment of Kitty Maryatt’s 2018 reconstruction of La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay is certainly enhanced by the “colophonic” booklet she included with the work and the “About” page online.
Perhaps the story of the little “i” left over – the colophon – will prod the future historians of book art to examine bookworks and their artists’ websites for those finishing touches and stir artists to bestow that last finishing touch for the sake of the work’s soul if not their own.
Richard Gameson. The Scribe Speaks? Colophons in Early English Manuscripts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (See for the human interest: “I, Aelfric, wrote this book in the monastery of Bath”; “Pray for Wigbald”; “Just as the port is welcome to sailors, so is the final verse to scribes”.)
Ming-Sun Poon, “The Printer’s Colophon in Sung China, 960-1279”, The Library Quarterly,43:1 (January 1973). (See for the 34 calligraphic inscriptions and the colophon to the Diamond Sutra: “On the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Hsien-t’ung [May 11, 868], Wang Chiek on behalf of his two parents reverently made this for universal free distribution.”)
Architecture — be it theory, principles, practices or instances — inspires book art. Lay the book flat; you have a foundation. Open and turn it on its fore-edge; you have a roof beam or arcade. Stand it upright; you have a column or tower. Turn the front cover; you open a door. Put the text and types under a microscope; you have a cityscape. As the examples in this virtual exhibition show, architecture-inspired book art goes beyond these simple analogies.
There are seemingly unrelated texts that help considerably in going there. The Eyes of the Skin (2005) and The Embodied Image (2010) by Juhani Pallasmaa, architect, teacher and critic, are two of them. He writes as if he were an artist preparing an artist’s statement or descriptions of the book art below. The title of his earlier book gives away his alignment with the visual and tactile nature of book art. Pallasmaa’s two books will enrich anyone’s enjoyment of the works shown and mentioned here.
Malone’s Ten Books of Architecture is a good place to start in the collection. Like Pallasmaa, Malone takes a broad historical and, most important, haptic view of architecture from Vitruvius to Hadid. Each of the ten books is a bookwork that exemplifies its subject.
The aspiration to fuse the cosmic and the human, divine and mortal, spiritual and material, combined with the systems of proportion and measure deriving simultaneously from the cosmic order and human figure, gave architectural geometries their meaning and deep sense of spiritual life.The Embodied Image, p. 23.
And further apropos the link between the book and architecture, consider the connection that Vasari drew between Gutenberg and Alberti:
In the year 1457 [sic], when the very useful method of printing books was discovered by Johann Gutenberg the German, Leon Batista [sic], working on similar lines, discovered a way of tracing natural perspectives and of effecting the diminution of figures by means of an instrument, and likewise the method of enlarging small things and reproducing them on a greater scale; all ingenious inventions, useful to art and very beautiful. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 1, trans. Gaston Du C. de Vere (London: Medici Society/ Philip Lee Warner, 1912-1914), 494.
In “An Architectural Confession”, Pallasmaa writes:
One’s most important teacher may have died half a millennium ago; one’s true mentor could well be Filippo Brunelleschi or Piero della Francesca. I believe that every serious artist — at the edge of his/her consciousness — addresses and offers his/her work to a superior colleague for approval.The Eyes of the Skin, p. 82.
This curiously textured cube sits perfectly alongside Pallasmaa’s observation: “The basic geometric shapes have their symbolic connotations, but more important than their conventional meanings are their conceptual and visual organising powers” (The Embodied Image, p. 58).
Malone’s Ten Books has a predecessor in Laura Davidson’s contribution to the 1994 Smithsonian show on book art inspired by its collection of rare science books (see section below). Although there is also Karen Wirth’s sculptural take on the Ten Books as well as Ron Keller’s take (see section below) on Palladio’s Fours Books of Architecture, which is Palladio’s take on Vitruvius, I have not found any other Vitruvian-inspired works of book art. (Pointers welcome.)
These two works — 30 St Mary Axe: Diagrid (2009) and 30 St. Mary Axe: Cladding(2009) — are among several architecture-inspired works of book art that Brannan has created. The text in one of those several — Situated — could have come straight from Pallasmaa, Bachelard or Merleau-Ponty:
Being situated is generally considered to be part of being embodied, but it is useful to consider each perspective individually. The situated perspective emphasizes that intelligent behaviour derives from the environment and the agent’s interactions with it.
By integration of image, colour and structure, Brannan situates the “Gherkin’s” architecture in your hands.
In the The Radiant Republic (2019), Sarah Bryant (Big Jump Press) brings together concrete, wood, glass, paper, ink and embossed printing, sewn binding, box container and texts from Plato and Le Corbusier.
Bryant’s insightful integration of Plato’s and Le Corbusier’s texts and ideas and her setting them in the physicality of the blond wood, linen cover, embossed type and sewn papers could easily be a response to Pallasmaa’s comment in The Eyes of the Skin: “The current overemphasis on the intellectual and conceptual dimensions of architecture contributes to the disappearance of its physical, sensual and embodied essence.” (p. 35)
Chinese Whispers (1975) is conceptual, visual and spatial narrative that takes the reader into a “game of embedded games”: a game of Chinese Whispers used by the artists to combine the process of making a book with the process of recovering an old cottage, making a corner cupboard, making jam, making ideas and making an exit.
Chinese Whispers (1975), Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes, Photo: Books On Books Collection
The selection of images above begins with the front cover’s photo of a patch of grass outside an abandoned farm building and ends with the back cover’s photo of the underside of the patch of grass. In between, the pages take the viewer through the trimmed hedge and the doorway into the room, through the building, the stocking of the shelves, using of the stock and closing of the shed cupboard, and so back to the other side of the patch of grass. As Stokes explained in the Journal of Artist’s Books (Vol. 12, 1999):
We started with the corner cupboard, that was the part that occupied our thinking most, that and the two colour vignettes (as we called them) printed on different stock. But then we started to think backward to what might be before the cupboard’s construction. To the thing before that, and the thing before that, and the thing before that which was cutting of the hedge and before that which was the boot brush which we called the hedgehog- that was where the book started. Then we started to photograph from that point forward, through the book.
The work blends the features of book structure, collage and montage to create something that resonates uncannily with Pallasmaa’s approving citations of Bachelard’s central idea of the hearth and domicile as central to our time-bound “being-in-the-world”.
Folded book pages rarely generate a work that rises above mere craft. Heather Hunter’s Observer Series: Architecture (2009) achieves the necessary height. It combines the altered book with an accordion book that incorporates a found poem composed of the words excised and folded outwards from the folded pages of The Observer’s Book of Architecture.
The very fact of a found poem made of excised words that happen to fall at the folds shaping a column from a book on architecture chimes with the title of Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
Chicago Octet (2014) byMarlene MacCallum embodies the collaborative creative approach often taken in architects’ practices. Collaborative working arises almost as frequently in book art. Think of Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay, Helen Malone and Jack Oudyn, Julie Chen and Clifton Meador, Robin Price and Daniel Kelm. Many more can be added. As described by MacCallum:
From May 19 – 26, 2014 a group of eight gathered at the Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts for a final collaborative project. This event was organized by Clifton Meador and myself and included David Morrish, Scott McCarney, and four Grenfell Campus BFA (Visual Arts) grads, Stephen Evans, Maria Mercer, Virginia Mitford, and Meagan Musseau…. The letterpress printing consisted of a word selected by each participant printed on one of Scott’s folded structures. The images were a digital layering of every cityscape photograph that I made and then inkjet printed on top of the letterpress. The final folded structure was designed by Mary Clare Butler. The case was designed and built by Scott McCarney, the front cover embossment was by David Morrish and Clifton Meador.
Chicago Octet fully unfolded, 17.5 × 11.5 inches Photo: Books On Books Collection
Can you hear the traffic and sense the layers of experience? What Pallasmaa writes here of rock art in Africa and Australia reminds me of Chicago Octet (or is it vice versa?): “
At the same time that great works of art make us aware of time and the layering of culture, they halt time in images that are eternally new. … Regardless of the fact that these images may have been painted 50,000 years ago, … we can … hear the excited racket of the hunt.The Embodied Image, p. 109.
Mill: A journey around Cromford Mill, Derbyshire (2006) is the result of the artists’ exploration of Cromford Mill in Derbyshire, the first water-powered, cotton-spinning mill developed by Richard Arkwright in 1771. Solid, plaster cast blocks are held softly between calico pages containing hidden texts, bound in recycled wooden library shelf covers that indicate there is history to be found within.
Having Mill is like having the building inside your house.
Architecture plays more than an inspirational role in Karen Wirth’s portfolio. As mentioned above, she has created her own take on Vitruvius’ Ten Books. She designed the Gail See Staircase at Open Book and the Hiawatha Light Rail Station, both in Minneapolis. The collage work Paper Architecture is based on an architectural installation at the Minnesota Center for Arts Design and draws on Wirth’s photos of Ayvalik, Amsterdam, Florence, Istanbul, New York City, Rome, San Diego and Venice.
In The Embodied Image, Pallasmaa singles out “the collaged image” as creating “a dense non-linear and associative narrative field through initially unrelated aggregates, as the fragments obtain new roles and significations through the context and dialogue with other image fragments” (pp.71-72). The materially disparate words in the title of Wirth’s work imply the dialogues she creates among paper, designs of letters and architecture, buildings across time and the globe, and photos tinted, four-colour, and black-and-white in palimpsest.
Former professor and head of the Department of Architecture at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, Yoon is now Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University. She is also cofounder of Höweler + Yoon, a design-driven architecture practice. Absence appears to be her only work of book art so far.
When you hold this small white brick of paper and turn its thick pages, a small pinhole appears on the page. Then two larger square holes emerge, one of which falls over the pinhole. Page after page, the two square holes repeat, creating two small dark wells in the field of white, until on the last page they take their place in the cut-out schematic footprint of the city blocks and buildings surrounding the Twin Towers of New York City. What you hold in your hands at the end is an object of art and book of memorial prayer.
Architecture-themed worksfrom other sites
Twice a semester, the Environmental Design Library at the University of California, Berkeley hosts “Hands On: An Evening with Artists’ Books”. In 2017, one evening’s theme was “Building on the Built”, illustrated by 25 works of book art. Organised by 23 Sandy Gallery in the same year, “BUILT“ was an international juried exhibition featuring 66 artist books by 51 artists examining the relationship between contemporary book art practices and architecture, engineering, landscape and construction.
Arranged alphabetically by artist’s name, this section provides links to favourites from these two exhibitions as well as other collections, exhibitions and installations.
On her site, Bruggeman writes, “This book/box project is built around excerpts from Architectural Body by Madeline Gins and Arakawa…. incorporates a blueprint of their Bioscleave House as part of the imagery….”. Somewhat like A Clockwork Orange or perhaps more like Heideigger’s tomes, the Gins and Arakawa book is a challenge to the reader’s expectations of diction and syntax.
Going against the usual structure of the book, that of a beginning, a middle and an end, Perera provides a space for infinite possibilities and multiple authors, creating “modules that can be re-sequenced and re-aligned to develop variable permutations and encourage participatory involvement, to share the final editorial control with the viewer to transform the ever-evolving work”.These possibilities for variable permutations are no more evident than in her constantly evolving project, Building Blocks Book, and its numerous subsequent iterations including The Negative Space of Architecture and The House That Jack Never Built (2008). Once again we find Perera exploring human interaction, not only with the concepts and her quizzical ideas surrounding architectural and public spaces and how we build between and move within, but also the physical interaction with the artists’ books she produces – the rearrangement and reinsertion of pages which allow the audience and participants new opportunities and pathways to proceed. Through the positive and negative space of the page or the type font, the Underground versus over ground, the artist takes us on journeys that are at once fluid and at other times obstructive. In these cityscapes, the U-turn is as common as the page turn – a necessary rupture in a free-flowing narrative. Chris Taylor, From Book to Book (Leeds: Wild Pansy Press, 2008).
Elizabeth Williams, “Architects Books: An Investigation in Binding and Building”, The Guild of Book Workers Journal, Volume 27, Number 2, Fall 1989. This essay not only pursues the topic of architecture-inspired book art but turns it on its head. An adjunct professor at the time, Williams set her students the task of reading Ulises Carrión’s The New Art of Making Books (Nicosia: Aegean Editions, 2001) then, after touring a bindery, “to design the studio and dwelling spaces for a hand bookbinder on an urban site in Ann Arbor, Michigan”. But before producing the design, the students were asked “to assemble the pages [of the design brief and project statement] in a way that explored or challenged the concept of binding”. In other words, they had to create bookworks and then, inspired by that, create their building designs. Williams illustrates the essay with photos of the students’ bookworks. [Special thanks to Peter Verheyen for this reference.]
In 1995, the Smithsonian Institute Libraries’ exhibition Science and the Artist’s Book explored “how science can serve as a springboard for artistic creation” and showed how “aspects of creativity … are common to science as well as to art”. The exhibition juxtaposed twenty-five rare books from the Heralds of Science collection at the Dibner Library with twenty-five bookworks commissioned as responses to them. For example,
Joyce Cutler-Shaw responded to Johannes de Ketham’s Fasciculus Medicinae (Venice: Impressus per Ioannes [et] Gregorius de Gregorijs fratres, 1495) with The Anatomy Lesson (Middletown, CT: Robin Price, Publisher, 1995);
George Gessert responded to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, 1859) with Natural Selection (Eugene, OR: self-published, 1994);
and Laura Davidson responded to Vitruvius Pollio’s’ De Architectura libri Dece [The Ten Books on Architecture] (Como, Italy: Gottardo de Ponte, 1521) with Ten Books of Vitruvius (Boston, MA: self-published, 1994).
As the exhibition demonstrated, the overlay of the dual traditions — those of art and those of the book — on the domains of science creates a rich soil for ingenuity and genius. Since that exhibition, science- and maths-driven book art has yielded harvest after harvest of outstanding book artists. Sarah Bryant is one of them. Bryant won the MCBA Prize in 2011 with Biography (2010) and was a finalist in 2015 with Figure Study (2015).
“[A]n exploration of the chemical elements in the human body and the roles they play elsewhere in the world”, Biography (2010) is bound as a hard cover drumleaf and enclosed in a clamshell box. It begins with the periodic table and assigns a coloured square to each of the chemical elements found in the human body. Using those coloured squares, the six subsequent diagrams show the presence of the body’s chemical elements in the earth’s crust, man-made weapons, medicines, sea water, etc. The flip-up folio (above right) displays their presence in various man-made tools and building materials. Bryant’s inventive handling of colour, the flip-up folio and blind embossed printing foreshadow developments in her later work.
Collaborating with David Allen, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, Bryant created Figure Study (2015), a graphical “comparison of population data for every region on earth”. In this work, Bryant takes her handling of shape and colour to a new level.
All 114 of these figures have been printed from linoleum onto drafting film and are housed together alongside a grid. The figures are each numbered and can be interpreted using a booklet containing an alphabetical and numerical index, as well as a short essay by David Allen about our process and the source of the data. The design of the enclosure encourages the viewer to layer the forms to create different combinations of shape and color. This process and the resulting imagery is initially reminiscent of elaborate dresses, paper dolls, and dissection plates, but the source of the data gives a different picture, laying bare the vast and critical differences between the basic equations of life in different parts of the world.2015 MCBA Prize Finalists
In correspondence with Books On Books, Bryant has noted the influence of Edward R. Tufte. Figure Study particularly may remind the reader/viewer of Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) and Envisioning Information (1990). In his books and lectures, Tufte champions the connection of art and science as well as information display that is interactive, which Bryant’s statement above echoes.
As her two bookworks above and those below associated with the collective Shift_Lab demonstrate, she has the gift of transforming analytical data, diagrammatic imagery , text derived from reference materials as well as personal experience and taking them beyond “visual display” and into art.
In Shift in Position (2014), Bryant draws on her own sleep patterns and movements. Extraordinary how, in Shift in Position, she manipulates the elements of the book to embody the “message” of the work. Note how she plays with layout, in particular, by running text syntactically over the loose folios (“a change/ in the wind” and ensuring the alignment of the graphical image. The work invites the reader/viewer to turn the two folios 180º — like a restless sleeper — to read/see the additional run-on text (“a shift/ to the side”) and the aligned image from another perspective. This use of the material and form draw the reader/viewer into a kind of creative act — negotiating the act of close reading with that of close looking.
Another collective work from Shift_Lab is Trace (2015). Bryant’s contribution is Listen Out for a Bell which Rings Continuously, which draws on sound and coastal mapping. It is based on her residence at the Brighton Marina, “a strange space between land and sea” where she immersed herself “in the quiet rhythm of the place”. In the first image above from Listen Out, it is obvious how the typography mimics the tide’s ebb and flow, perhaps less obvious how the overlapping texts’ rhythm and syntax surge, overlap, peter out. Look even more closely at the two lower images, two sides of the same sheet: note how the colours on the two sides of the sheet register against one another to create the kind of topographical mapping found in marine maps. Beyond that effect, the two pages challenge one’s sense of place in the world. On the left hand side, one is looking down on the boats crowding in on the marina; on the right, one is below the water and looking up at the hulls. To achieve a further infusion of place with the work, the work is even printed using chalk from the surrounding cliffs.
The Radiant Republic[is] built entirely out of language found in Plato’s Republic and Le Corbusier’s The Radiant City. In these texts, separated by more than two thousand years, Plato and Le Corbusier each describe a city plan designed to provide a framework for morality and ethics. These works are revered, but they are also deeply troubling. In The Radiant Republic, language from Plato and Le Corbusier has been combined to create a narrative in five parts.Big Jump Press/Portfolio/Artist Books/The Radiant Republic
When Bryant writes “combined”, she means it as the work’s title performs it. Paragraphs in each of the five volumes merge sentences from Plato with those of Le Corbusier. In its combination of the titles of Le Corbusier’s and Plato’s works, respectively, The Radiant Republic signals its textual ambition: to merge the two different texts. The disconcerting oracular tone and coherence of the narrative underscore the revered yet troubling nature of the two works, which is reflected in the epigraph to The Radiant Republic:
Every physical thing carries within its deepest layers a tendency towards its own destruction.
— Moshen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow, On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time (MIT Press, 1993)
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
In The Radiant Republic, Bryant uses techniques and materials old and new to her in an aim for new heights of art and depths of thought. The box enclosure itself is the first new technical feature we encounter.
Although the collective works comprising Trace are housed in a box, this one is more elaborate in material and media. It is made of laser-cut Baltic Birch plywood, lightly treated with Tung oil. The lid is covered in Dubletta book cloth, which has been printed letterpress with polymer plates and linoleum. Lifting off the cover reveals yet further new materials and techniques. Five pamphlets each consisting of Rives Heavyweight paper sewn to a lightweight cover made of handmade Belgian Flax, produced at the Morgan Conservatory in Cleveland, and held together with a wrapper rest on a sheet of glass.
In several ways, the book component shows the encounter of previous techniques/media with the new. The precise fold work and registration to be found in Biography and Listen Out reappear, as does the meaningful integration of separate parts in Figure Study. Here, it is the geometric fold patterns in the covers echoing the geometric solids. Flax paper is a new element in Bryant’s repertoire.
The blind embossed printing from Figure Study moves from the cover there to the interior of the book component here and with substantive, non-decorative intent. Across the five volumes, the embossed text is the same as that printed in ink and always appears on the last folio. But here is the catch: the text that appears comes from the succeeding volume’s inked text, and it appears in fragments. When the last page of the fifth volume appears, the embossed text on its folio’s last page is a fragment of the inked text in the first volume. The fragmentation of the embossed printed version and its variation in depth mime the weathering of structures and ideas.
The circular movement and fusion of the past and present are also reflected in the double-page prints centered in each volume. Note how the technique of prints interlocking across folios in Shift in Position replays here in the prints interlocking across the five volumes to assert a narrative thrust but in a landscape with no fixed beginning or end.
The contrast of materials — cloth, wood, flax paper, Rives paper and concrete — plays out in the concrete solids. Some edges are sharp, others blunted; some surfaces are smooth, others rough. This happens also with the covers to the five volumes according to the absence or presence (and density) of folds and, in one case, of crumpling or no crumpling. It happens in the prints, where the backgrounds include faint images mirroring the structures in the other media. This technique of contrasting materials/media and that of recapitulating the contrast within one or more of the materials/media seems to be a new development in Bryant’s art or, at least, an intensified one.
The multiple materials and techniques and their many-sided interactions pose a pleasurable dilemma for the work’s display. As soon as one is in place, another beckons.
No surprise then that the first pamphlet’s opening words are “You and I at this juncture are not poets but founders of a city”. This self-reflexive invitation to creativity is like that invitation to negotiate reading with looking — an invitation to participate and to recognise our participation as part of the creative act. An increasingly characteristic aspect of book art.
The [artists’ book] movement had its beginnings with a few individuals (conceptual artists Dieter Roth, Hansjörg Mayer, and Ed Ruscha immediately come to mind), but in the area of structural experiment and invention only one person seems to have been markedly influential (albeit seriously ignored): Hedi Kyle.
Alastair Johnston, “Visible Shivers Running Down My Spine”, Parenthesis, Fall 2013m Number 25.
While Alastair Johnston’s 2013 interview with Hedi Kyle is a rich one and welcome, it is inaccurate to say Hedi Kyle has been seriously ignored. After all, in 2005, the Guild of Book Workers awarded her an honorary membership, and Syracuse University’s Library invited her to deliver that year’s Brodsky Series lecture. In 2008, the Philadelphia Senior Artists Initiative recorded her oral history and posted her artist’s statement along with an extensive list of prior exhibitions, honors, professional roles and board memberships stretching back to 1965.
And now, in 2018, Laurence King Publishers has brought out the eagerly awaited The Art of the Fold by Kyle and daughter Ulla Warchol, which is the immediate impetus for this essay. The authors aim their book at artists and craftworkers, but there is a secondary audience: anyone interested in book art or artists’ books or origami — and learning how better to appreciate them.
On picking up the book, the first thing its primary and secondary audiences should notice is the folded “dust jacket”. Why the quotation marks? Just look:
This innovative, subject-appropriate cut, fold and print can set the reader on a hunt for precursors such as Peter and Pat Gentenaar-Torley’s Paper Takes Flight/Papier op de Vlucht, designed by Loes Schepens, where the multilayered dust jacket has small envelopes attached to hold paper samples from the contributing artists, or Doug Beube’s Breaking the Codex, designed by Linda Florio, where the dust jacket includes a perforated bookmark, whose removal implicates the reader in a bit of biblioclasm and challenges Western parochialism.
The Art of the Fold‘s clean, balanced design (Alexandre Coco) and excellent diagrams (authors) mesh well with the text. While this integrated clarity in the introductory section on Tools, Materials, Terminology, Symbols and Techniques will be appreciated most by artists and paper engineers, the secondary audience of library/gallery curators, aficionados and collectors will benefit from the description and comments in particular on materials, terminology and techniques. Knowing these points about an object of book art enhances appreciation of it and improves its handling, presentation and preservation.
Following this introduction, Kyle and Warchol provide 36 sets of detailed instructions across 5 sections:
This double-page spread introducing the accordion structure shows off the the diagrams’ clarity, a feature throughout the book. Also in this spread are two important statements in the verso page’s final paragraph:
The accordion fold as an independent component is our focus point in this book…. Let us start with a brief visual display of a variety of folding styles. Hopefully they will inspire you to grab some paper and start folding. (p .28)
The focus on structure “as an independent component” is a strength and weakness. The strength is self-evident in the thoroughness and attention to detail. The weakness? More than occasionally, the authors make asides about the meaningful interaction of structure with content and, occasionally, with other components (type, color, printing technique, etc.). Some exemplars selected by the authors would have been welcome. The artist’s and reader’s challenge is to provide their own examples of how the structural component might work with different types of content, mixed media and other components that combine to deliver the artistic object.
The second statement — the exhortation “to grab some paper and start folding” — illustrates an unalloyed strength of this book. As towering an authority and figure in the book arts and book art as Hedi Kyle is, she and her co-author go out of their way again and again to keep readers open to playing with the techniques and structures and finding their own inventiveness and creativity. For those content to collect or curate, both statements push them to look for or revisit outstanding examples and inventive variants of the structures elucidated. After this section, a browse of Stephen Perkins’ accordion publications, a site running since 2010, would be a good start.
This double-page spread introducing the section on Blizzard structures delivers that blend of the anecdotal with essential engineering-like detail that is characteristic of the authors’ style throughout. Having explained how this family of folded structures that bind themselves got its name (a fold discovered in a daylong fold-a-thon due to a blizzard’s shutting everything down), the authors dive into the proportionality so key to getting them right. Perhaps because of its non-adhesive, origami-centric nature, the blizzard book structure generates more than its fair share of kitsch exemplars. When blizzard books do come along that rise to the level of art — integrating structure, content, printing, typography, color and other components of bookmaking in an artistically meaningful way — they stand out all the more. One such work took first place in the 23 Sandy Gallery’s juried exhibition in 2015, “Hello Hedi”:
Next to The Accordion section, the One-Sheet Books section has the most models. It is also the section that most addresses that challenge mentioned above:
A book folded from a single sheet of paper, including covers, offers a unique opportunity to consider the content and cover as one comprehensive design exercise. We explore the coming together of printing, layout and folding. (P. 94)
Given this opportunity, some treatment of imposition would have been useful, especially for the Franklin Fold and the Booklet Fold Variations. For the Booklet Fold Variations, one could lightly pencil into the book’s clear diagrams the usual markings and enumerations as below.
Again, a few selected photographs of examples of One-Sheet Books that achieve the coming together of content, design, printing, layout and folding would have been welcome.
The double-page spread above with which the Albums section begins exemplifies the book’s quality of photography (by Paul Warchol, Ulla’s husband). Like the “dust jacket”, the crisply photographed Panorama Book structure (upper right) and the pages that explain it will send readers on a quest to make their own or hunt for outstanding examples such as these by Cathryn Miller and Cor Aerssens, a long-time friend and correspondent with Kyle.
A cautionary, or perhaps encouraging, note though: the fact that some structures can enfold others will frustrate readers with strict classificatory minds and exhilarate the more freewheeling. The Phelps’ Blizzard Book highlighted above includes in its sections items exemplifying the Flag Book and Fishbone structures. Aerssens’ Memories is even more so an integrated variant of the Panorama Book structure, featuring as it does panels within panels, two 8-leaf booklets bound into front and back with paper hinges, and mylar folders holding pressed flora from Aerssen’s northern Dutch environs.
The Enclosures section presents fascinating structures, not all of which are suited “to fit many of the projects in the previous chapters”. For example, the second-most fascinating form — the Telescoping Ziggurat, shown in the lower left corner of the recto page above — looks incapable of enclosing any of the other 35 structures. The authors acknowledge it is “less of a book and more of a toy — a stimulating and curious object whose inherent mathematical quality mesmerizes as it spirals inward and outward”. The most fascinating form, however, is as much a book as stimulating and curious object: the Sling Fold structure.
This structure looks suited to enclosing scrolls or narrow, collapsed accordion books of diminishing height, and its mechanics invite playful integration with content and variations of color, typography or calligraphy, printing method and materials.
It would not do to conclude a review of this book without touching on the Flag Book structure, for which Kyle is so well-known. It is found in The Accordion section. The outstanding works implementing this structure are legion. Here it is below in all its glory, which is exceeded only by the Two-Sided Flag book in the pages following it.
The Art of the Fold should become an instant classic. If readers are tempted to “grangerize” their copies with photos and clippings of favorite examples and variants, they would do well instead to create one of the authors’ album structures in which to keep them. There could be many editions of this classic to come.
The British Library and Maggs Bros Ltd (with Designer Bookbinders) have separately delivered a profusion of book arts and book art events for the month of May: from the BL, talks associated with the exhibition “Writing: Making Your Mark” and the series “Artists’ Books Now”; from Maggs Bros and DB, workshops and displays associated with London Craft Week (8-12 May).
At the British Library, I peered through the glass at the Diamond Sutra (868 AD). The distinctiveness of the portraits and the density of the carving rival that of 15th century Renaissance frescoes and Durer’s prints. Even if photography had been allowed, the vitrine and lighting would not permit my camera to capture the details, and reduced in size from the original, the postcard below barely does. Alternatively, a visit to the BL’s website yields a zoomable image by which you can judge the distinctiveness and density yourself.
If, counting from the time of Lucy in the Olduvai Gorge, the 5000 years of writing and reading makes for only a tiny sliver of the anthropocene, the era of reading books represents so far a sliver of that sliver. Belinda Jack, a Fellow and Tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, talked for a brief hour about the history of the reading “half” of the equation. Jack’s Reading: A Very Short Introduction is built on the premise that, unlike the writing half with its artefacts of bone, rope, clay, bamboo, stone, paper and screens, this other half’s history proceeds only through indirect evidence of what we do with the written, by speculation about our reaction to it.
Although she did not mention making art in, with or from books, it was impossible not to think of the “glass free and photos allowed” exhibit of bookbinding and book art at Maggs Bros Ltd, Bedford Square, only 20 minutes’ walk from the BL.
Two works by Midori Kunikata-Cockram were on display: Hawthorn (2019) and African Grey Parrots (2010). You can find other examples of her bindings in the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings. The two examples shown here, however, could be pulled from the shelf, opened, closed and examined. If you zoom in on the left-hand panel above, you might see that one of the stamens of the hawthorn blossom floats above the petal. That kind of attention to detail makes this work of otherwise muted colours a vibrant thing you can feel with your eyes.
Meeting Mark Cockram at the exhibit was welcome serendipity. Not only did he tell me about African Grey Parrots’ being Kunikata-Cockram’s response to their keeping a parrot during a friend’s vacation, he pointed out the meticulous registration within pages and across the recto to verso pages. The feel and appearance of the cover’s vellum is just as breathcatching.
The pages of Cockram’s oversized contribution to “psycho-geography” feels like they had been pulled off hoardings to be bound in the sidewalk-grey leather. At a more textual end of the spectrum is his on-spec binding of this edition of A Clockwork Orange, signed by Anthony Burgess. The way the title spreads across the back cover, spine and front cover almost forces a handling of the book — turning it over from front to back then back to front — and, in the process, feeling the collaged textures of the boards bound to the spine.
The weight of the garish boards holds the book open for a comfortable reading of the 1960s text block — as if they were saying, “Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well”.
The BL’s exhibition continues through 28 August. Exhibitions at Maggs Bros Ltd are shorter lived but can be spotted by following them on Instagram.
A day’s visit with one hundred exhibitors hosted at the Arnolfini in Bristol leaves me reeling like a drunken sailor — drunk on colour, texture, light, line, shapes, words and artistry. Appropriate given the Arnolfini’s location on Narrow Quay in Bristol’s floating harbour.
Lucy May Schofield talked to me about her “search for the indigo that is infinity”. The Distance of Us is only one of several pieces demonstrating how close she is coming. The Longest Day on her site is one among many by which to enjoy her progress.
Mick Welbourn took time to explain how his search among inks, paper and geometric shapes kept leading him from a unique work (oil-based) to multiples and back to uniques. These colours reminded me of the work of Sonia Delaunay.
Bodil Rosenberg, a member of the Danish collective CNG (Anna Lindgren, Bertine Knudsen, Birgit Dalum, Pia Fonnesbech, Susanne Helweg), appeared delighted that I was surprised by the colour and texture of Vandstand (“water level”). Somehow after the saturation of the paper with layer upon layer of paint, each page has a supple leather- or cloth-like feel — a coolness to the touch. I think Ken Campbell would relish Vandstand.
Caroline Penn’s works comprised by Notes from Chesil Beach made me reach out to pick up one of the pebbles on the page. The trompe l’oeil effect of turnable pages in the photos is enhanced in one variation by inclusion of an actual small gathering of pages. The role of trompe l’oeil in book art is one worth investigating.
Eileen White’s Haptic Narratives and her lumen prints for Printed Matter made a nice segue from texture to ghostly light. Printed Matter also looks forward to the “artistry” section here as book’s images are un-fixed and eventually fade away. To use the book form — the traditional form of permanent record — to present a language and reminder of material ephemerality: that is artistry.
Helen Douglas (Weproductions), fresh from exhibitions at Printed Matter in New York and Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, was displaying her 2017/2018 series Field Works as well as a new book Summer Alight. The photographic effects, the visual narrative and structure achieved in Douglas’s works define artistry.
Elena Zeppou’s Parallels first caught my eye because of its size, but closer inspection yielded appreciation of line — vertical as well as horizontal — and its union with text and form. Note how the lines of poetry read across the accordion.
Listening to Mandy Brannan talk about custom papers, French fold books and modified flag books is almost as good as handling them. The work30 St Marys Axe (inspired by the building fondly known as the “Gherkin”) was what first drew me to her table. It has two variations — Diagrid and Cladding — which reward repeated handling as well as regarding.
At the ArtistBooksOnline table, the shape-changer Inside/Outside by Susie Wilson kept me as busy as if it were a Rubik’s cube or paper puzzle with a medical mystery inside — or outside.
Puns, slippery words and slipperier concepts seemed to explode from Guy Bigland‘s table.
My inner metaphysician of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction and Post-Deconstruction found its element(s) at the Atlas Press.
AM Bruno, run by Sophie Loss, and of which John McDowall is a founding member, is always a rich vein of artistry. The works from the 2018 theme-driven project, Cover, appear in the box below but warrant a closer inspection at the link behind the word. John McDowall had a new book on hand: Time-lapses. As I turned the brilliantly white pages, each segmented into squares like a comic-book page but only one square in each page holding an old black-and-white photo, the title began to sink home. And then came the idea that all the meaning that could possibly explain any one photo, its relation to the other squares or to other photos or to the author or to the reader/viewer — all of it — has to take place in the empty spaces between.
Janet Allsebrook displayed a Duchampian box with the Delaunay-esque title Nichoir. Although the drift of this work (“waste time making your own useless nest box”) is echoed in her other works, the echo reverberates with a deeper tone — often political or philosophical. The variety of book forms is impressive.
Next door was the artist of Zen book art — Julie Johnstone – Essence Press. In addition to extensions of her percentage tint series, she had on hand several explorations of breath, print and paper: each breath, a page; quietly breathing; five breaths; and ten breaths. Wherever they are, her books make a Zen garden.
Sarah Bodman and Arnolfini brought together a rich collection of talent and should be thanked for doing so and encouraged to repeat it in 2021. And to the artists mentioned — and those not — who took the time to share their thoughts on colour, texture, light, line, shapes, words and artistry: Encore!
Magicienne des formes et des couleurs is how Art & Métiers du Livre (2002) describes Shirley Sharoff. The magic she makes reveals itself in a particular kind of fusion. One of structure, content as image, content as text, color, type, layout, material and craft. It is a magic best sensed when handling or really seeing her work.
OVI: objets volants identifiés dans le ciel d’Italo Calvino (1988) Shirley Sharoff Graphic ‘big bang’ and typographic spirals with an extract from Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, postface by Mario Fusco 4 color etchings printed by the Atelier René Tazé Edition of 74 on Vélin Rives Typography by François Da Ros in Cochin typeface In a silver-colored box of 26.5 x 37 cm Photos by Books On Books and reproduced with artist’s permisision
Brooklyn-born but resident and working in France for most of her life, Sharoff studied in Paris under Gotthard Johnny Friedlaender (1912-1992), learning his method of making color prints from two or three different plates. She came to the artist’s book in the 1980s through a friend who introduced her to a typographer with whom the friend was working: François Da Ros.
During my conversation with [Da Ros], I told him that I had an idea for a book but didn’t know how to go about it. It involved prints and an excerpt from one of Italo Calvino’s works. … that’s how my first artist book got started — and once I did that I thought “artist books” were so interesting that I just wanted to keep on doing it. — Artist’s correspondence with Books On Books, 18 December 2018
The result of that encounter was OVI (1988). The text came from Calvino’s Big Bang story “Sul far del giorno” (“At daybreak”) in his collection Le Cosmicomiche (1965) (Cosmicomics, 1968). Calvino’s story relates how the main character, Qfwfq, and his extended family, from a species we cannot identify, experience the cosmic Big Bang.
The story’s language, character and narrative deliver an astrophysical and micro-organic alchemy that falls in line with Calvino’s association with the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OuLiPo) or “Workshop for Potential Literature”. OuLiPo’s participants seek and have sought new forms and structures for literature through play with the properties of language, word games or imposing constraints through mathematical or computational principles such as Boolean algebra or recursiveness. For example, Georges Perec wrote La Disparition (1969), a “lipogrammatic” novel avoiding any words containing the letter “e”. Raymond Queneau constructed Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961), which is actually an interactive work of book art, confronting readers with 1014 different sonnets generated by the reader’s choosing one of 10 options per line, accessed by turning each line like a page.
OVI lifts this literary playfulness into a revel of intricate puns, played out in language, image, typography and structure or form. Sharoff discovered the Calvino story in Le Monde independently of her prints already underway, but it was the conjunction of the story with them that led her to “an idea for a book”. Although, like Friedlaender, Sharoff would illustrate books, the idea diverged from a mere illustration of the story or a livre d’artiste in the traditional sense. Like many book artists, Sharoff conceived a blend of image, text and form. The Sharoff/Da Ros execution of her idea re-presents, absorbs, reacts to, embodies Calvino’s fiction in a work that stands apart from it. It is the reverse of the usual ekphrasis we see when a literary text strives to re-present, absorb, react to, embody an urn, a sculpture, painting or print. Think of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”.
Instead of Unidentified Flying Objects (OVNI in French), the artist gives us OVI (“identified flying objects”), the first three of which are the letters “O”, “v” and “i” appearing through the “black holes” of the silver paper slipcase. As the black portfolio emerges from the slipcase, we see the i’s dot adrift as perhaps another object in the firmament. Through the holes in the slipcase, the same letters reappear printed on the inside of the slipcase but with the i’s dot no longer adrift (the “stars” aligned?). And this is just the start of the punning and play with structure, content as image, content as text, color, type, layout, material and craft.
Encased in the trifold black portfolio are nine loose map-like folios.
Opened, the folios display selected text from the French translation of Calvino’s short story and four Sharoff prints. In three of the prints, the text swirls, construction-poem-like, around the multicolor images. Part of the folios’ magic here is Sharoff’s fusion of image with the substance of Calvino’s words, a Friedlaender-esque palette and the typographic and form-locking skills of Da Ros.
The first image looks like a macrophoto of a cell (or is it an image of the sun?) with numbers superimposed. The second image looks like a cloud nebula (or is it some multicellular life form with two flagellae?) consisting of everyday objects. The third image looks like an asteroid belt (or is it a paramecium?) made of a discarded aerosol can and other trash.
One of the four prints stands alone without text. The image is a cascade of large and small numerals, logic symbols, a gear, protractor and metallic-looking detritus landing in a heap.
One of the leaves deploys a Turkish map fold, opening to reveal a constellation of numbers, letters from the periodic table and terms from particle physics and astrophysics — an outstanding display of skill from Da Ros and entirely evocative of Qfwfq and his family’s bizarre tale of the big bang. It’s also a prescient reminder that a crater on the planet Mercury and a main asteroid belt were named after Calvino.
The separate folios echo the abrupt jumps in Calvino’s story. In the end, Sharoff succeeds with OVI in echoing how the story — despite those jumps, the bewildering and unpronounceably named characters and the teasing references to familiar and unfamiliar domains of knowledge — hangs together. The spiraling text makes the viewer turn and turn the opened folio to read the words — much as the story’s surreal yet familiar characters and their situations make the reader puzzle through the storyline. The prints present the viewer with familiar yet unfamiliar shapes composed of everyday objects or recognizable symbols. The tactility of the paper, the solidity of the slipcase and texture of the multicolored prints play off the intellectuality of the ekphrasis and scientific images and symbols in much the same way as the familiar familial relations play off the characters’ bewildering experience of the cosmic Big Bang.
Sharoff’s next major artist’s book — again with Da Ros — would be La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991). There is little if anything implying a Chinese or other oriental influence on printmaking or typography as practiced by Friedlaender or Da Ros, respectively. And until her visit to China in the late eighties, Sharoff’s work showed no such influence. When the influence came, it was concentrated in the one work. Sharoff was concerned not to respond to China in a typical Western artist way or to fall prey to traditions that neglected the hardship or grittiness she saw while teaching English to young Chinese bank employees. Sharoff hungered for a text that would fuse with the images coming to her in reaction to the remnants of the Great Wall, the summer palace’s maze, and post-revolutionary infrastructure.
She uses the words of the 1930s writer Lu Xun and those of her 1980s English-language students to bounce echoes of strife, ambivalence and paradox from the walls of her prints and artist’s book, a double-sided accordion in forme en escargot (snail-shell form as she calls it). Lu’s poem appears in Chinese calligraphy and translated into French and English, set in bold and equal in weight to the Chinese characters. Sharoff breaks the three versions across increasingly shorter segments of paper, layering the different languages like mortar and rows of bricks. In a different, smaller typeface — like fragments of modern brick — the English text from her language students, reflecting on Western culture and their lives, is interspersed along with eight prints. The “snail-shell” structure unfolds/unrolls in a way that both “sides of the wall” end up being read. The juxtapositions and structure draw the viewer repeatedly from the flatness of paper into the multiple dimensions of the bookwork.
Bringing together barriers/bridges — languages, cultures and political eras — the bookwork breathes its own original life into Lu’s text of ambivalence and paradox. It is an effect similar but on a different scale to contemporaneous works by Xu Bing: Book from the Sky (1991) and Ghosts Pounding the Wall(1990-91). The faint markings on the Arches paper of Sharoff’s wall, markings created by printing the results of repeated photocopies of an unidentified manuscript, echo the unreadability of Xu’s faux Chinese characters printed from his 4,000 hand-cut stamps for Book from the Sky. The red edge of Sharoff’s wall and the words of Lu Xun catch the echo of Xu’s and his students’ beating their ink-soaked mallets against the rice paper hanging on the Great Wall and invoke the ghosts of those who died building the wall. The execution of the unusual “forme en escargot” equals in exquisiteness and production value any of Xu’s works.
On first encounter, that snail-shell structure of this double-sided accordion book challenges the reader/viewer. Should the work be completely unfurled? Should it stand on its edge, or be laid flat then turned over? To try to read La grande muraille in those ways, however, is to overlook the multi-page spreads that Sharoff conceived with François Da Ros. The snail-shell form, its multi-page spreads and the text demand that you read La grande muraille as you unroll it or, rather, as you unfold it.
With the book laid flat, the “page spreads” are easier to recognize, the text is easier to read, and the forethought needed for the “imposition” of text and images to deliver the sequential text, easier to marvel at. As each recto page is turned to the right, two new pages appear to the right. This unfolding approach to reading the book offers several intriguing “double- and multi-page spreads” and an experience of the texts and eight prints in the sequence driven by the text. When you have finished reading in this sequence, you will have read both sides of the scroll.
La grande muraille is a rare work, viewable at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague and these other locations. Almost as rare but still available from the artist is Impermanence subtile/Subtle Impermanence (2013), in which Sharoff continues her experimentation with structures. She returns to the cased portfolio and folios of OVI but introduces fraction folds (two-thirds, etc.), vertical flaps and an accordion structure with mountain folds. In collage-like manner, silhouettes and cutouts of modern everywoman and everyman move through their urban working and shopping environment. And vice versa, images of the environment behind the cut-outs move through everywoman and everyman!
Sharoff’s everyman and everywoman are in strife with the environment. The portfolio opens with a “collage of garbage” whose relationship to them becomes clear in the ways Sharoff works the fragment of Ian Monk’s poem “Tri selon Tri” (displayed in French and English) in, under and through her prints and book structure.
The cutouts of everywoman and everyman fill up with the photos of trash behind them. In the prints, they stroll entangled in bricks and clutter toward an outcome where “in this universe of base and yet subtle impermanence, we should give up on the old refrains and the four elements of earth, air, water and finally fire, and instead divide matter into four new categories, i.e., paper, plastic, glass and in the end everything left over — those things that finish up in their own trash can” — i.e., us!
Continuing with the elemental, paradox and structural experiment, La poésie de l’univers (2012-2013) takes up the challenge of the folded single-page codex. In each of the three volumes in the set, the pattern of folds and cuts is the same, yet the pattern’s interplay with the prints and bilingual content in each seems uniquely appropriate. A hat trick of book art magic.
The Poetry of the Universe consists of three aphorisms: Aristotle’s “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”; Euclid’s “Parallel lines meet in infinity”; and Lavoisier’s “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”. As mentioned with La grande muraille, the execution is exquisite, and likewise, learning to read the work requires exploration.
The etchings in soft grey — an orange and its segments, a blossom and its petals, a walnut and its meat, and a tree and leaf — illustrate the aphorism, much as the typographic choices and arrangements and the breaking up of the sentence complement it. Sharoff makes the second and third volumes perform similarly but differently — just as a magician weaves a routine from variations on the same vanishes and productions of a coin or other object.
As Comentale wrote in Art & Métiers du Livre: ”magicienne des formes”. La Poésie de l’univers is as rare as OVI and La grande muraille. It can be viewed here and here.
The most extensive essay on Sharoff’s work can be found in Paul van Capelleveen’s Artists & Others(2016). It comments on La reparation (2001), The Waves (2003), Les amazones sont parmi nous (2005), Bruits de la ville (2007), Impermanence subtile (2013), La poésie de l’univers (2012-2013). He addresses La grande muraille (1991) in Voices and Visions (2009). The special collection at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Netherlands is one of the few where several of Sharoff’s works — including La grande muraille — can be seen and handled in one place.
Christophe Comentale’s essay captures the delight of exploration and discovery in the encounter with Sharoff’s art.
Shirley Sharoff, entre France et Etats-Unis, présente une pluralité d’inspiration consommée entre l’estampe et le livre devenu un média, entre unique et multiple. […] Magicienne des formes et des couleurs, Shirley Sharoff ne cesse de remettre en cause, par besoin autant que par défi personnel, tout ce qui pourrait ressembler au début d’un système de lecture, de vision, figé et donc clos. L’impossibilité de savoir -qui vaut aussi pour elle- de quoi sa prochaine oeuvre-livre-manuscrit-tableau-dépliant, ou tout cela à la fois, sera fait est assez excitant. La présence de textes sentis par affinités sensorielles, personnelles, avec des écrivains non encore classiques, autant de raisons d’apprécier de pénétrer dans cet univers où le conformisme est inexistant.
Christophe Comentale, “Shirley Sharoff, des livres a tenir debout et des estampes a voir aussi”, Art & Métiers du Livre, n°231 (Aout-Septembre 2002), p.63.