Tom Chatfield’s short essay “I Type, Therefore I Am” celebrates the increasingly rapid rise of literacy.
At some point in the past two million years, give or take half a million, the genus of great apes that would become modern humans crossed a unique threshold. Across unknowable reaches of time, they developed a communication system able to describe not only the world, but the inner lives of its speakers. They ascended — or fell, depending on your preferred metaphor — into language.
The vast bulk of that story is silence. Indeed, darkness and silence are the defining norms of human history. The earliest known writing probably emerged in southern Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago but, for most of recorded history, reading and writing remained among the most elite human activities: the province of monarchs, priests and nobles who reserved for themselves the privilege of lasting words. …
In the past few decades, more than six billion mobile phones and two billion internet-connected computers have come into the world. As a result of this, for the first time ever we live not only in an era of mass literacy, but also — thanks to the act of typing onto screens — in one of mass participation in written culture.
This is strong but quiet work. It blends Eastern and Western traditions of the book arts. It joins the blackletter fonts of the Cistercian monks with the typography of Hermann Zapf. It joins John Cage’s chance-determined selection in the creation of art with a group of physicists’ fascination with the crumpling of paper. It experiments with abstract art and Japanese fore-edge illustration and binding. It offers a meditation on Gilles Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque through an intricately folded reprinting. The artist’s eclectic appreciation of the work of Sappho, Walt Whitman, St. Francis, Gilles Deleuze, Søren Kierkegaard, Ernst Haeckel, Robert Herrick, Miguel de Unamuno and others finds an impressive unity in this collection.
Rutherford Witthus has worked with books for most of his life, starting in high school as a page in the Denver Public Library, where he was introduced to the world of rare books and fine editions by curator Harry Mooney. His subsequent interest in ancient philosophy led him to the University of Denver, where he received a BA and an MA in Philosophy. He taught there as an instructor during the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s. An additional degree in Librarianship and Information Management allowed him entry into the professional library world, where he specialized in archives and manuscripts. After working for a number of years at the Denver Public Library and the University of Colorado at Denver, he finished his career at the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center as Curator of Literary and Natural History Collections.
As a retirement gift to himself, he enrolled in the Book Arts and Printmaking MFA program at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. His interest in book structures was ignited in classes taught by Hedi Kyle, with whom he independently studied the design of Asian books. Combining his interest in ancient languages and book structures, he is currently working on a series of books of literary fragments.
Over the course of the last decades, Rutherford Witthus has pursued traditional and alternative photography. His images are used primarily in his own book structures, although a few hang in private collections.
This is a work that succeeds on every level: the text, both humorous and pithy, is engaging, the craft and material selection superb, the design and layout a balance of image, information and space.
The presentation is such that one is informed, enticed and amused before even getting to the ‘insides’ of the work – a corporeal codex, the inside story.
We read that the work was inspired by Torso Woman, a genuine anatomical model of serene evisceration. Mounted on the interior central panel, appropriately placed on a brush worked depiction of an armless, legless female, who does, however, have a head), wearing a stoic (or is it serene?) expression is an organically shaped book that includes overlapping shapes reminiscent of the human anatomy books of the fifties.
Based in Denver, Colorado, Abecedarian Gallery offers an eclectic and enjoyable selection of bookworks and prints for sale. The Abecedarian holds regular exhibitions (such as the Emerging Artists exhibition) and offers an annual Gallery Directors Award (which Gardner won this year). Well worth a visit.
News Item – British Academy. Part of Literature Week at the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences, an exhibit called “Turning the Page” and presenting the book sculptures of Justin Rowe, a bookseller in Cambridge, is being held from 20 May through 24 May. The works are in the “reverse ekphrastic” mode: the bookwork is an expression of, or meditation on, the text of the book from which it is made. The exhibit has attracted attention from the BBC and even the free Metro paper. Looks and sounds worth a visit if you can skive work for one of the lectures and a browse round the exhibit.
Here is truly found book art. All the work here was done by bugs. As the artist relates, “I merely recognized the feast, or rather the scene of the feast. I did wonder, however, if they stopped to pause when they got to the entomology section.”
… a dictionary that had been left out on the ground for months to be eaten by slugs, worms, snails and woodlice, with leaves, dirt, twigs and animal droppings now embedded into its surface. The dictionary, a material object that names the world, was thus brought into tension with the (named) animals that consumed it as food. Tunnelled with eating trails, a few tiny fragments of its text remained – ‘tempt/to fail to/up a resist/expos’ – like bits of poetry gleaned from an archive, the uneaten depths of the dictionary. This work lightly referenced John Latham’s Still & Chew book-consuming event of 1966.
And from his series Le Vite dei Libri (The Lives of Books), Giulio Maffei provides clever catalog entry on the Sunset Strip.
Gagosian Gallery is pleased to present an exhibition of Ed Ruscha’s legendary artist books together with books and works of art by more than 100 contemporary artists that respond directly and diversely to Ruscha’s original project. Organized by Bob Monk, “Ed Ruscha Books & Co.” has been drawn from private collections, including Ruscha’s own. Most of the books are installed so that viewers can interact with them and browse their pages.
Spanning over fifty years, Ed Ruscha’s artistic production has been variously discussed under the rubrics of Pop Art and Conceptual Art. However, the remarkable diversity of Ruscha’s work eschews categoriza- tions whether historiographical or medium related. Ruscha’s example has been seminal not only in the field of painting, but also in printmaking, photography, graphic design, experimental filmmaking as well as architecture.
In 1513, Louis XII of France issued an edict praising printing, exempting it from a large impost and removing a tax on books. Louis declared that “the printer-booksellers … ought to be maintained in their privileges, liberties, franchises, exemptions, and immunities, in consideration of the great benefits which have been conferred upon our kingdom by means of the art and science of printing, the invention of which seems rather divine than human ….” Two years later, Louis was dead, and the lot of books and printer-booksellers fell under the shadow of France’s so-called Father of Letters, François I, who issued an edict in 1535
banning the use of the printing press and permitted books and printers to be consigned to the flames for blasphemy. (Richard Christie, Etienne Dolet: The Martyr of the Renaissance, 1508-1546, 1899. Pp. 330-31). Which might be said to challenge the certainty of taxes while confirming that of death.
This year is the centenary of Gerard Meynell’s trade periodical The Imprint, which was the scene of Stanley Morison’s first appearance in print. How appropriate then that Morison’s book A Tally of Types tells the story of the journal’s founding and, equally important, how the historic font called Imprint Old Face came into being. The font’s importance is that “the design had been originated for mechanical composition. … the first design, not copied or stolen from the typefounders, to establish itself as a standard book-face.”(p.21) Ironically, Meynell and his colleagues intended for the font to be freely available to the trade, but eventually it came into the ownership of Monotype Imaging, where it can be obtained today under the OpenType family.
As the world of print morphs into its digital incarnation, we see the same impetus behind the new generation of typographers, the ones born digital, but we see varying degrees of adherence to the “type wants to be free” movement.
The “starflies” — those butterfly-shaped, W-shaped sheets of printed paper — are Wendy Williams’ signature (see the installation “King“).
In her 2010-11 “Travel Project,” she reached out to those who appreciate her work to put her signature to use with the Internet’s version of “Kilroy was here” as variously practiced by Travelocity and others in the “roaming gnome prank” and by the late Patrick Keiller and others with the fictional character Robinson. Not that she cited those examples, which I mention here to suggest how the “Travel Project” speaks to the “intentional fallacy” anyway.
In one of her blog entries in 2010, Williams writes, “The travel project is going OK. People are so hesitant to take a photo of something that isn’t theirs. I have got a few back, which is good as I can use them as examples to show what I’m after. I suppose February is a while off yet so there is plenty of time.” What is Williams “after”?
No one has stolen her “gnome” to take it on a global trek. The viewers of her art are not an army of enlistees or draftees intent on “marking” every tree, lampost and view with their cultural scent. The artist recognizes that there may be discomfort and hesitation in her viewer/artist arising from the boundaries of intellectual property lines. Even in the face of stated intention, the viewer/critic hesitates. In placing Williams’ starflies within the frame of photos taken around the world, what do the contributing participants become: the brush and maulstick of the artist? artists in our own “right” as well?
If the non-participating viewer or critic deems “Travel Project” a meaningful, artistic success, on what criteria is that success measured? Its reflection of Williams’ intention? The quality of Williams’ curation — how does the critic measure that quality if the critic is not privy to the elements “curated out”? The degree to which Williams’ signature integrates the many contributing hands or voices into the implicit hand or voice of a Robinsonian perspective?
By the standard of whether a work of art makes us think and whether it draws us back to itself, the “Travel Project” lays a fair claim.
The artist describes “Eight Points to Eternity,” created from a medical dictionary, as a “Continuous eight pointed star.” The description seems entirely gratuitous. “Continuous” — yes, well, the title is “points to Eternity,” and can the viewer not grasp that the bindings are linked in a circle? It rather over-explains the pun of the title (an 8 on its side is the symbol for — points to –eternity).
So often bookworks are over-titled and over-explained. Equally often, artists swing the other way, entitling works “Untitled” or simply giving them a number. The latter has the advantage of making the work stand on its own and, equally, forcing the viewer to stand on his or her own before the art object.
“Altered books,” “bookwork” or “book art” — whether as mere craft or meaningful art — almost inevitably carry the freight of the original work’s content, structure and paratextual apparatus as well as their own “meaning.” Some bookworks may be a kind of ekphrasis in reverse. Rather than text playing off a work of art, the bookwork plays off the original book. The tunnel book showing cut-out characters or a collage of elements from the actual content of the altered book is the most evident example of this reverse ekphrais.
Here, with “Eight Points to Eternity,” the artist strains a bit for an ekphrastic connection when she explains how the “medical freight” of the dictionary fits into the meaning of her bookwork:
Where do our modern medical ideas truly come from, and how much of it can we attribute to the past?
Buckley fares somewhat better with her bookwork entitled “Good Intentions,” in which she has excised the content from an old edition of Ogden Nash’s poetry and left only certain lines. The work reminds me of Ros Rixon’s “How we understand sculpture,” a title that stems from the original book’s being a book about sculpture. “Good Intentions” and “How we understand sculpture” are subtle and conspire with the subject matter of the raw material with which Buckley and Rixon have worked.