This collection note is a reminder of how comparison and contrast can lead to understanding how particular works evoke pleasure, thought and appreciation.
The First Cut (2015)
Ovid’s Metamorphoses has lent inspiration to poems, paintings, sculptures and even cinema — why not book art?
The First Cut (2015)
Transformed Harvard Loeb Library Translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
H7.75″ x W5.5″ x D6.5″
Photos: Books On Books
Lee’s The First Cut transforms the two Harvard Loeb volumes into what appears to be a block cross-cut from a tree with red and black bark, split down one side showing the inner bark and flesh. The metaphoric metamorphosis of book back to tree alludes to the transformation of Daphne, Myrrha and others into trees but that is only one of many changes to which The First Cut leads the eye and mind.
Looked at on edge, the object shows the might-have-been-expected concentric tree rings transformed into a variety of quills, folds and warped signatures. Some inked black, some red; some a bleached white, some an aged beige. The numerous shapes in the cross-sectional view are changing and press on other changing shapes. Likewise in Metamorphoses there are manifold transformations of humans: not only into trees but flowers, birds, stones and more as well.
There is also something uterine or endoscopic in the cross-sectional view. There is plenty of sexual activity between humans and the gods in different forms in Ovid’s poem. A tree serves as Adonis’ womb, and Ovid often provides agonizing descriptions of limbs and organs undergoing their change. Among so many metamorphoses, which is “the first cut”?
Transformed Peter Green Translation of Ovid’s The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters
Manipulated Text, Ink, Graphite. H9.5″ x W12″ x D6.5.”
Photos: Paul Kodama
The Latin word “silenda” means “secret”, which evokes the still unknown offense that led to Ovid’s exile by Emperor Augustus in 8CE to Tomis (now Constanţa, Romania) where Ovid wrote his poems of exile. The ink-blacked pages evoke both the hiddenness of the secret and the black despair into which Ovid sank.
Silenda strongly resembles another of Lee’s works: Nous [There’s No Why Here] (2014), an altered philosophy book. The Greek word “nous’ means “the faculty of intellectual apprehension and of intuitive thought”, especially as it applies to a grasp of first principles. The subtitle to Nous and the opaque ink-blacked pages work more broadly, bluntly and ironically with the identity of that work’s raw material than is the case with Silenda.
Nous [There’s No Why Here] (2014)
Jacqueline Rush Lee
Photo: Paul Kodama
How do we weigh one work against the other? On the basis of the identity of the raw material? On the basis of the title? (What if both were “untitled”?) On the basis of execution? On the basis of how well the source material, the title and the execution combine and how they “work” with the visual impact of the object created?
The questions aren’t restricted to these two works, this artist or book art. Consider the numerous instances of “incised and excised” books. The term is used here for works such as Brian Dettmer’s Eye Surgery (2005) or A Sentimental Journey #1 (2018), where the artist has cut through the front cover, down through the pages, and left sentences and images in meaningful relief. Many other artists have produced similar works, but Dettmer’s combination of technique and the object’s close alignment with its source book set the bar for this kind of art. His individual works invite that closer look at their similarities and reward the look with differences to enjoy.
To return then to Lee. Her works (The First Cut, Silenda and previous ones similar to them) also have set a bar for this variety of book art. They invite a closer and comparative look. Here is an opportunity to compare and contrast similar works by different artists. In 2018 at Museum Swaensteyn (Voorburg, The Hague), Marian Meerbeek displayed a work entitled Ex Libris: Black Pages.
Ex Libris: Black Pages (date unknown)
Photos: Books On Books
Not far off in appearance from Silenda or Nous. But the effect on the viewer differs, and the Ex Libris title works differently, not alluding to the subject of the source book. Meerbeek’s object looks simultaneously charred and crystallized — like something ex libris (“from the library”) after a conflagration, flooding and dessication. Obviously different from the effect of Silenda or Nous. Meerbeek’s process also differs from Lee’s for those two works, but it resembles somewhat the process Lee used for her own Ex Libris series whereby “books and periodicals were fired in controlled kiln environments with no clay or slip addition” and resulted in “fragile, bloom-like forms or skeletal remains, while others were coral-like, calcified forms with covers that were shell-like in feel with text, cover titles, and book cover colors present in their new, warped state”.
Ex Libris: Endoskeleton (1998)
Jacqueline Rush Lee
Fired book in kiln (Biology book)
H7 x W15 x D17 inches
The results from their two different techniques are clearly night and day. On the score of technique, a three-way comparison of Silenda, Endoskeleton and Black Pages yields high points across the board. The intent of the series’ titles — Ex Libris — is similar if not the same. In her work-specific subtitle, however, Lee alludes to the source work or its nature; Meerbeek does not.
Does that little extra from Lee enhance our enjoyment of Endoskeleton over Black Pages? Or does it simply place Endoskeleton — like Silenda, Nous and The First Cut — in a different category, the category of reverse ekphrasis? Exphrasis generally refers to literary efforts to depict a work of art: Auden describing Breughel’s Icarus or Jarrell describing Donatello’s David. In the process, the poems go beyond mere description or allusion; they stand on their own. Reversing this, Lee (and Dettmer) take physical instances of literary works and create art that depends on the literature from which they are actually made, and they stand on their own.
But if the viewer is not or cannot be aware of the identity of source material, is the work a lesser work for that? Without some awareness of the biblical stories, images and symbols to which a religious work of art alludes, the experience of the work seems certainly lesser. But does that apply to these ekphrastic works (reverse or otherwise)? Does the more slightly subtle way that the title of Silenda works with its source than Nous works with its source give an added edge to Silenda?
Dettmer, Meerbeek and Lee provide offer another basis by which to appreciate their works: that of innovative variation of technique and form. Dettmer’s move from the relief effect of Eye Surgery to three-dimensional carving of single and multiple volumes (for example, Tristram Shandy, 2014) shows such innovation. Such innovativeness enhances our appreciation and preferences across his works and those of other “book surgeons”. A visit to Meerbeek’s site shows innovation within the Ex Libris series (more so, however, in other works with other materials and techniques), and it is possible to prefer one work in the series over another. Likewise a visit to Lee’s site will prove that the breadth of her innovation is even wider than the impressive evidence of The First Cut, Silenda, Nous and Endoskeleton.
”Bookmarking Book Art – Jacqueline Rush Lee, updated 2017”, 30 January 2017.
“Bookmarking Book Art – Jacqueline Rush Lee”, 17 June 2013.
Lyte, Brittany. “Jacqueline Rush Lee Layers New Meaning Using Old Books”, Living, April 2017 Volume No. 2, pp. 20-30.
Strob, Florian. “Buch und Kunst”, Lesen, 6 October 2010, pp. 22-23.
On “reverse ekphrasis”: