Formerly housed at Bank Street Arts, the collection was seeking a new home in August 2018. This online catalogue provides access to the 650+ artists books donated over the 10 years in which Bank Street Arts organized the Sheffield Artist’s Book Prize (now the SIABP). Among the outstanding contributions, you will find: Louisa Boyd’s Stardust , Candace Hicks’ Common Threads Volume XI VIII, Julie Johnstone’s A Book of Hours Frances Kiernan Yuanyang, Peter Knight Enduring Relationship with Print, Helen Malone Unchartered Democracy, M.L. Van Nice’s Coming to the City, Chris Ruston’s Ice Matters, Tracing Memory Lines of Vanishing World, Wilber Schilling’s A Reminder and Elisabeth Tonnard’s A Dialogue in Useful Phrases
Josh Hockensmith, curator at the University of North Carolina’s Joseph C. Sloane Art Library, made it possible for me to handle this searing work memorializing the 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ School of Ayotzinapa who disappeared in September 2014 near Iguala, Mexico. The driving rain outside the windows that day compounded the work’s effect.
The hard work of describing Velázquez’s book has been done by Stephen Dingler, rare book cataloger at the University of Texas, Austin, Below is an excerpt of online comments on the 13th copy of the edition of 43.
The use of the number 43 is not restricted to the title in Ms. Velázquez’s work. Forty-three numbered copies of the book were made; the book, constructed in concertina (accordion) style, has 43 unnumbered pages; the numbers from one to 43 are printed across several pages; on one page the number 43 is produced in braille. There is little text but the book artist’s use of photographs showing demonstrations and rallies, as well as portrait photographs of the 43 missing, convey a sense of outrage and a demand for justice. The book’s pages are colored black, with most splashed or streaked with red paint, which further conveys a sense of horror and tragedy at what happened.Stephen Dingler, “The Significance of Numbers”, The Top Shelf, 15 August 2016. Accessed 7 September 2018.
Even with more than 100 people arrested in relation to the case and a key suspect in custody in March 2018, the facts remained unknown. The 43 would have graduated in July 2018. Mexico’s new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has committed to launching an independent commission on 1 December 2018 to to re-open the investigation in compliance with a federal court ruling.
Other artist’s books by Lorena Velázquez:
El Latido del Corazón/Heartbeat (2011) Book 24.5 x 35.5 cm; box 38.5 x 37 x 4.5 cm; mixed media, digital printing over plaques of collodion and several objects; edition: 4 + 2 a/p.
It can be hard to find the time to experiment with your art. Often you feel everything we create should be a finished artwork but it is extremely valuable to take the time to just play. It can feel like a waste of time but often from these opportunities the most fascinating results, techniques and […]
Fascinating how book art has its global dialects.
A search of Lafayette College’s Artists’ Books Collection on the genre yields 1284 entries, including works by Alicia Bailey, Julie Chen, Maureen Cummins, Steven Daiber, Karen Hanmer, Margaret Kaufman, Clifton Meador, Lois Morrison, Werner Pfeiffer, Gerhard Richter, Maryann Riker, Edward Ruscha, Buzz Spector, Barbara Tetenbaum, Erica Van Horn and Sam Winston.
Check out the archives for the Werner Pfeiffer exhibition.
Worth a visit to the Skillman Library if you’re in Easton, PA.
The National Library of the Netherlands advises, “for [Shirley Sharoff’s La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)] to be read, the book first must be rolled out”. And that is what I did, using the large table in the Special Collection’s seminar room.
Enjoyable as that was, enjoying it again with the video afterward, something seemed awry. As the Chinese poem by Lu Xun, its French and English translations and text from Sharoff’s language students unrolled, interpersed with her prints, the text seemed to have gaps, or so I thought. So I returned a second time. Perhaps if I re-shot the video. Perhaps if I took more stills and close-ups. Perhaps if I shot the rolling up as well as the unrolling.
No doubt, the second effort added to the pleasure. Looking at the videos and stills, I can again feel between my fingers the Arches paper and engravings’ impressions on it. But still I detected gaps, seeming mismatches between the French and English. I wondered to what degree they
followed the Chinese text or whether some of Lu’s text had been omitted. So, I returned a third time, and then came my “ah hah” moment. Unrolled, La grande muraille looks like a double-sided leporello or accordion book like this one: In Mexico by Helen Douglas.
To read La grande muraille as the double-sided leporello it appears to be, however, is to overlook the multi-page spreads that Sharoff conceived with François Da Ros (her typography and print collaborator) in putting together this forme en escargot (snail-shell form as she calls it). 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.
Reading the text
Now that the so-called gaps in the English and French texts were resolved, I wanted to understand how the English and French matched up to the Chinese text. For that, I asked help from two acquaintances in The Hague: Bee Leng Bee and Yingxian Song. They obtained a copy of Lu Xun’s text, traced it through the photos I had taken and found that the three languages run almost in parallel as the work unfolds.
“Almost” because the order of the languages is not alway the same. On pages one and two, we see the French and English titles but must wait until page five before the Chinese title appears. Then, on page six the order changes: English first, then French, then the corresponding ten Chinese characters. On pages seven and eight, this order is maintained. Later, with the turning of page fifteen, the French comes before the English and Chinese; the first Chinese character aligning to the French and English (其) appears on page seventeen. Then, as page seventeen is turned to the right, the order changes back to French then English on page eighteen, but on page nineteen, it moves to French first then Chinese. The book’s textual conclusion on pages fifty-six through fifty-nine runs Chinese, English, then French.
The juxtaposition and weaving of the three languages often seems painterly as if intended to evoke the layering of the bricks and the intertwining vines and foliage along stretches of The Great Wall. Here is the uninterrupted Chinese text:
Reading the images
Even though following the forme en escargot results in having reading both sides of the scroll in the end, Sharoff also uses it to play with the notion of intended sequence. Completely unrolled and standing on its edge, the work echoes the Great Wall. The tint of red along the top edge recalls the blood spilled in the Great Wall’s construction. The prints echo the Great Wall’s bricks, the vegetation in its crumbling gaps, even the gates. The completely unrolled work is an intended sequence, also — an invitation to walk the wall. Coming upon each of the eight copperplate engravings in the unfolding sequence is a different experience than walking up and down the “outer wall” and then the “inner wall” to see them. Five are on the outer wall, three on the inner.
Reading the form “in time”
As the force of the snail-shell binding resists the unscrolling and pulls the standing pages inward, the work has another echo: the eroding maze in the Ancient Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) outside Beijing. The faint markings on the paper, created by printing the results of repeated photocopies of a manuscript, amplify the echo.
Although Lu’s text does not mention the maze, Sharoff introduces contemporary text that, alongside the interweaving Chinese, English and French of Lu’s text, evokes a maze-like, time-travelling effect. The autobiographical texts from the English-language students she taught at the Central Institute of Finance and Banking (1987-88) reflect on their childhood and adolescence in the Maoist era and their recollection of representations of foreigners in books and television. These “new bricks” in their modernness and fracturedness interrupt the flow of Lu’s prose praising and cursing the Great Wall. Yet, in their segmentation and placement, they also physically echo the prints and reinforce Lu’s expression of the paradox in the construction, fragmentation, reconstruction and erosion of the real Wall.
Sharoff’s La grande muraille is a treasure that rewards repeated visits and contemplation: not only for itself but also as a parallel or forerunner.
La grande muraille’s physical impetus (The Great Wall), the seemingly decipherable/indecipherable characters on the Arches paper, the wry paradox of Lu Xun’s observations, the socio-political-cultural implications of the “new bricks”, the work’s innovative form and the pulling of past and present together parallels the work of Xu Bing and his play with language across East and West. His Book from the Sky first appeared in 1988.
Sharoff’s use of Lu’s contemplation on The Great Wall also foreshadows Jorge Méndez Blake‘s Capítulo XXXVIII: Un mensaje del emperador / A Message from the Emperor (2017?). The title refers to an anecdote in the story “The Great Wall of China” by Franz Kafka, a contemporary of Lu Xun. The narrator tells the reader how the emperor has dispatched from his deathbed a message to the reader, entrusted to a herald who, struggling as he might, cannot escape from the confines of the palace to deliver the message — yet which we the reader await hopelessly and with hope.
What more should we expect from art?
*For help and permissions, thanks to Paul van Capelleveen and the staff at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, and Shirley Sharoff, Paris. For help with the Chinese and calligraphy, thanks to Bee Leng Bee and Yingxian Song.
Rotch Library offers a small but growing collection of contemporary artists’ books. The collection focuses on artists’ books published from the 20th century to the present and explores a range of techniques and technologies employed by the books’ creators.
- Memories of Science by Dorothy Yule
- The City Within by Natalie Draz
- Zig Zag by Werner Pfeiffer
- The Actual Accordion Book by Peter Thomas and Donna Thomas
- Discovering Book Arts at MIT, Slice of MIT
- Sarah Hulsey, Picturing Language, Arts at MIT
- Object Lesson: Werner Pfeiffer’s Errantry, Arts at MIT
- Speculative Motion by David M. Moyer
Errantry, a 27-foot scroll housed in a howitzer shell casing, is inspired by Der Triumphzug Kaiser Maximilians or The Triumphal Procession of the Emperor Maximilian (1515), a series of 130 woodcuts by Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531) and others, about which Pfeiffer comments: “One of the dominant features in this document is the militant nature of many of the characters depicted, as well as their posture in parading their arms on horse, by carriage or on foot.” The text in Errantry draws from a poem of the same name in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology. The source poem, composed by Bilbo Baggins, describes one of his quest adventures in the usual self-aggrandizing yet self-pitying tone. As a model for Pfeiffer’s text, it makes the digitally printed images of war all the more horrible.
The images of the coral, square, circle and triangle are “pulp printed”, a hybrid silkscreen/papermaking technique, which Rotterdam learned from Tim Mosely. The images themselves are made of fine pulp paper, transferred to, pressed and dried together with the receiving kozo/cotton paper. Message (or image) and medium are one, a sea around the letterpress text, whose words and acts described harmonize with technique, material, color and shape. Here are “pages” 1 to 5 as a sample.
As with Sea of Things, Rotterdam achieves another singular union of technique and meaning in Absences. Where Sea of Things addresses selecting and collecting, Absences addresses loss, memory and the experience of time.
Rotterdam’s explanation of the connection between technique, material and meaning can hardly be bettered:
When I made my first cyanotype photogram ten years ago, I was immediately struck by the way in which light shapes against a deep-blue ground show, simultaneously and paradoxically, what was there when the paper was exposed but what is now no longer there: the photogram makes absences visible. This realisation has led to an exploration of the metaphorical properties of the cyanotype process and to speculation on the relationship between photography, mementos, and memory, between memory and loss, and on the nature of time, in six brief reflective texts.
Rotterdam’s site rewards repeated visits. It traces her development as a book artist since 2003 and demonstrates mastery and strength at each stage. Her work can be acquired through the site. Rotterdam lives and works in Groningen, The Netherlands, home to the Book Arts Network, Grid Grafisch Museum and De Ploeg, an artists collective started in the early 20th century.
It took a long look at the development of Ioana Stoian’s work to show me the relationship of trompe l’oeil to book art — and to appreciate how an artist can invent herself.
Stoian’s apprenticeship as an artist began with the decorative arts in 2004 in Lower Normandy, France, and has taken her to New York (MoMA), Cologne, Vienna, Salzburg, Minneapolis, Ostende (Belgium), Kadoide (Japan), Amsterdam (the Stedlijk) and, as of 2015, back to Minneapolis, where she is a Jerome Foundation fellow at the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts.
Stoian’s time as an assistant artist with the Scottish painter Lucy McKenzie, starting in 2008, honed her skills in deceiving the eye with faux woodgrain and faux marbling. For example, see McKenzie’s 2008 installation at MoMA, 2009 installation at the Ludwig (Cologne), 2011 installation at the Galerie Buchholz and 2013 installation at the Stedelijk. One may wonder whether Daniel Buchholz’s roots in antiquarian books or the Stedelijk’s in artists’ books prepared the ground for Stoian’s artistic direction toward book art and paper art, but book art and trompe l’oeil joined spectacularly in 2014 when Stoian had the chance to work with Tauba Auerbach in 2014 on the completion of Auerbach’s Wood and Bent Onyx. Stoian handpainted the fore, top and bottom edges of the book blocks in watercolor pencil and paints to match the color and grain of the prints of wood and marble digitally offset on pages of Mohawk superfine paper. As a technique, fore edge painting dates to the 16th century, and the “vanishing” variety, where the painting appears only when the pages are pressed and fanned out, dates to the 17th century. Over time, a standard type of press developed to hold the “canvas” of page edges evenly fanned to accept the painting.
Despite this established history of fore-edge painting, Stoian had to fall back on a mastery and technique that come from her apprenticeship work, inventiveness and meticulousness. These books were very heavy and the pages were very thick …. There was absolutely no way to fan the pages. I went through the book, page by page, and made marks of where the wood/ marble veins were located.
Then I clamped the book so that water wouldn’t seep in and using my ‘map’, I recreated the wood/ marble. As you can imagine, it was challenging to match the inside spreads. I had to constantly unclamp, verify that I was matching the spreads, re-clamp, paint, wait…
I used both watercolour pencils and paints. Needless to say, it’s very hard to erase watercolour without using lots of water and saturating the page. I had to be careful with every single brush stroke I made.
There is something Zen-like about trompe l’oeil in the attentiveness to detail, to material, to execution. But there is more. To mangle a Zen saying: Trompe l’oeil is more than a pointing at the moon; those who gaze only at the pointing will never see beyond — never see the beauty of the moon, never see the beauty of the pointing. With the best of trompe l’oeil, that moment in which the eye is fooled recurs again and again for the attentive viewer. In its recurrence, the work of art alternates between the self-referential (the mind drawn to the pointing) and the mimetic (the mind drawn to the pointed at).
So it is not surprising that Stoian has “always been interested in Japanese art and culture”. As early as 2008, origami appears in her commercial decorative work. She is the author of two books: Origami for All with her partner Eric Gjerde (2013) and The Origami Garden (2016). In reviewing both books for The Fold , Jane Rosemarin commented:
… as I paged through her first book, “Origami for All,” I eventually began to understand that Stoian is an artist who has chosen origami as her medium. Her work is not hard to fold, but it has a consistency of style and a real beauty.
Recognized not only for their origami, Stoian and Gjerde were invited in 2013 to exhibit their paper art at the prestigious Salon des Artisans et Métiers d’Art, held at La Propriété Caillebotte in the village of Yerres outside Paris. While Gjerde’s folds explicitly explore the mathematical (for example, Voronoi tessellations and hyperbolic paraboloids), Stoian’s explore shapes more suggestive of the oriental: cranes and flowers as in Strelizia (2010).
Where Gjerde’s interest in his material has led him to bio-art (paper grown from bacterial cellulose), Stoian’s has hewed to traditional papermaking, which figures consistently in her work: for example, Hidden Within (2010). In 2012, that interest in traditional
western papermaking had turned eastward:
After discovering western papermaking, I became fascinated with thin, strong sheets, which obviously led me to washi – the Japanese paper made from mulberry. I naturally had the desire to go to Japan and see how this paper was made.
It so happens that a friend of mine, Tomoko Fuse (a very talented and well-known female origami artist and perhaps the most published origami author in the world), was at a paper folding event in France. I casually mentioned that I wanted to go to Japan to learn papermaking. Next thing I know, she had very kindly organised for me to spend a month with Yasuo Kobayashi, master paper maker and owner of Kadoide Washi – an offer I could not refuse.
I spent a magical month in the mountains, during the Kozo harvest (December) and had an amazing time learning from a great master.
Yasuo Kobayashi is a fifth-generation papermaker but also a writer and philosopher, whose unique views on papermaking warranted his inclusion in the American Folklore Society’s sponsored report on apprenticeship and papermaking. Yasuo Kobayashi told the report’s author, Aimee Lee: “I wanted the kozo to tell me what kind of paper it wants to become, not to force it to be what I want. This is not typical for papermakers. I want kozo to be my teacher.” When asked to elaborate,
… Kobayashi compared bunka (culture) and bunmei (civilization). “Bunka is what you think from your heart.” In contrast, bunmei’s goal is to develop constantly, exemplified by the western desire for progress: people do not want today and tomorrow to be the same—they want things to be less difficult and more convenient. This mindset cannot translate to making real paper. His grandfather’s and father’s lives were not very different. His father’s and his lives were a little different. But his son’s and his lives are so different that it is hard to relate across that rift. He sees two roots for the future of paper: growers and makers. Real kozo goes with the heart but is inconvenient and does not follow progress. Kigami [paper] comes from the root “to be born,” and this word also relates to breathing. When born, paper is like a child: weak, but growing stronger over time until it dies. He knows that his point of view is rare, but also said people must balance bunka and bunmei, rather than to go absolutely one way or another. Today, the balance is too heavy on the professional side, so he tries to balance this by leaning towards the growing side.
Stoian’s jump at the chance to learn from him is consonant with her “journeyman’s” approach to her artistic development. Note that the visit to Kadoide Washi precedes the work on Wood and Bent Onyx for Tauba Auerbach in 2014. The methodical diligence required in making washi and the resulting appreciation of the properties of paper re-present themselves in Stoian’s mapping of the grain and perceiving what the works and the paper “wanted”. The impressive fore-edge work with Wood and Bent Onyx now seems inevitable, rising from a combination of technique and deep appreciation of color, material, form and structure in the service of illusion. In her own work, Stoian strives toward bunka, which is evident in works like Strelizia and Hidden Within, where the form and color her handmade paper takes combine to convey feeling — or “heart” as Kobayashi might put it. Her aim has become even clearer during the Jerome Foundation stage of her “journeyman’s” journey.
Stoian received the Jerome Foundation Mentorship grant for 2014/15 at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts to create an artist book — an extraordinary artist book. The mentorship program offers emerging artists the resources to create a book, fusing together newly acquired skills with aspects of their own artistic practice. The grant provided one year of 24-hour access to the Center’s facilities, a mentor, and a series of introductory workshops on paper making, letterpress printing, and book binding.
Responding to her new wintry environment, Stoian embarked on l’hiver (2014), a new work consisting of 80+ individually hand-made and dyed pieces of paper. L’hiver is reminiscent of Hidden Within (2010) in its pursuit of a harmony of color, structure, and form. The former is perhaps more open than the latter and lets each part’s snowflake-like uniqueness assert itself.
The congruence and continuity of those two works do nothing to prepare the viewer for Nous Sommes (2015), the artist’s book that follows them. While Nous Sommes continues Stoian’s aim of harmony among color, structure and form, while its intensity of colors harks back to the stencil work for Lucy McKenzie’s Stedelijk exhibition in 2013, the structure and form Stoian chose marks a bold departure.
The cover and binding of Nous Sommes has the feel of a Solander box. The book opens in a particular order of lifting the triangular flaps, one of which displays the “Table of Contents” and another the colophon.
Nous Sommes has nine “chapters” or differently sized, shaped and colored slipcases whose material matches that of the cover and binding. The chapters fit precisely together (tangram-like), but the order of their reading lies with the reader’s choice of color, shape or size. The video provided by Stoian and Gjerde offers one of many readings of the work.
Within each chapter is a precisely fitted paper structure to be “read” by unfolding, positioning, displaying, contemplating and, in conclusion, returning it to its chapter/slipcase.
Commenting on Strelizia, shown earlier, Stoian writes,
I am interested in intuitive color experiments; this work represents the flow from mood to colour, with the final form of the paper manifesting itself from these captured emotions.
In Kandinsky’s footsteps, perhaps, this artist finds and aims to offer the spiritual in art. The title Nous Sommes suggests so. Whether the expression “we are” applies to the art object (self-referentially) or to its audience (individually or collectively), form, structure and colors assert community, inclusion and a fitting together.
We can look forward to Stoian’s next chapter as she has received a follow-on appointment from the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts: the 2017/18 Jerome Foundation Fellowship.
Selected for the 2017 Manly Library Artists’ Book Award exhibition in New South Wales, Australia, The Future of an Illusion by Helen Malone and Jack Oudyn demonstrates an effective collaboration in a field of art densely populated with — almost defined by — collaborative efforts:
Edouard Manet and Stéphane Mallarmé; Bertrand Dorny and Michel Butor; Dorny and Michel Deguy; Barbara Fahrner and Kurt Schwitters; Ron King and Roy Fisher; Telfer Stokes and Helen Douglas; the Art + Language Group (Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, Ian Burn, Harold Hurrell, Joseph Kosuth, Christine Kozlov and Mel Ramsden); Tom Rollins + K.O.S.; Julie Chen and Clifton Meador; and Chen and Barbara Tetenbaum.
That list is by no means comprehensive nor representative – chronologically or categorically — but it flags the strength of the tradition. One pair that is particularly apropos for Malone and Oudyn is Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars. Over a century ago and half a world away, they collaborated on La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, also in the leporello, accordion or concertina format. Malone writes that it “has always been very influential generally on my work.”
As described by Claire Kelly of Melville Books,
Cendrars as poet and publisher and Delaunay as painter were interested in achieving what they called simultaneisme, or a “simultaneous book.” They wanted to create a form of art in which painting and text could be united in expression. Delaunay painted the left column of color and abstract shapes guides us through the text, which is set in various typefaces, allowing for movement as the reader mimics the journey across the page as described in the train ride in the poem. Claire Kelly, Melville Books
The Future of an Illusion springs from two imaginations struck by two literary works: Sigmund Freud’s eponymous book on belief in an afterlife and Jim Crace’s novel Being Dead.
It delivers an emotional simultaneity that echoes the different kind of simultaneity Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars achieved. Malone and Oudyn have the advantage of their subject — death, decay and the afterlife — that provokes simultaneously conflicting emotions and states of mind. Fear, humor, sorrow, hope, despair, etc.
The choices of two texts, the double leporello and techniques — and the way they are applied — play with that emotional simultaneity beautifully. The use of Crace’s text (and the “reverse-ekphrastic” influence of the whole novel, which documents the decomposition of a dead body left in nature) adds to the work’s physicality. The choice of title from Freud’s book centers the artwork’s perspective on death — the void toward which the central tunnel leads.
The Future of an Illusion appeared in exhibition at Grahame Galleries in Paddington, Brisbane, and a copy resides in the collection at the State Library of Queensland.
In the middle of a shelf in Diane Stemper’s Ohio home, Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages sits bookended, on the left, by two books about Francis Bacon and, on the right, by a small monograph on Pierre Bonnard and another book Art and Culture of Japan. The books are not organized alphabetically or chronologically. When she pulls the book out, it feels perfect, not too thin or thick, its dimensions and weight ideal for carrying in a shoulder bag. It has a feeling of secrets and importance.
Since discovering Stemper’s work at the Center for Book Arts (New York, 2014), I have wanted to talk to her about the themes and material that drive that work. Art and science, paper and glass, the universal and the particular, ink and watercolor, the physical and the spiritual. We finally arranged it in medias res, and she agreed to this oblique approach to her mind and art.
BoB: As you open Art and Beauty to its mid-point, what do you hear, smell or see about it or around it?
DS: Well, not sure if you mean inside of the room I am in or the memory it conjures, so I will go with memory. The words “cathedral”, “Chartres”, “vestibule”, “allegory” take me from the immediate space of my front room to the interior of a European cathedral or even perhaps as a child to the pews of St. Paul Cathedral in Minnesota during midnight mass. There is the fragrance of incense, the dark light of an imposing building, chanting and mystery. There are also the many hands of craftsmen chipping away at stone, painting glass and the laborers who put it all together and probably were not treated all that well.
Then there is that word “parabolic” and Eco’s explanation of Aquinas’ description of the arts as being literal, that the poetic image and its meaning were in the mind of the “reader” and that this association was a “matter of habit” – this reminds me that I and my viewers have different habits of mind, from the museum visitors I once toured who loved Impressionism and were hostile to Rothko, to the viewers responding to my specimen series – “why are they dead, did you kill them, that’s icky”. Surface literalism can be a matter of what one is familiar with and fearful of what one does not understand, but it can also be a “way into a piece” if the viewer is willing.
BoB: At the end of his book, Eco sums up his explanation of how the medievals looked at art with this startling statement, “They saw the world with the eyes of God”. What of today’s viewers of art and, in particular, those who look at your art?
DS: When originally picking the book from the middle of the middle shelf and then opening it to the middle, that sentence you mentioned — “The association of an image with a certain meaning is a matter of habit” — leapt out. Eco was referring to the ability of people of the Medieval period to read an image as if it were a literary text, for example, knowing instantly which animals or colors represent which biblical figure or story. However, I am reading Eco’s words from my 21st century vantage point, where there isn’t necessarily a concrete set of universal meanings assigned to objects or colors that every person understands and knows.
He also writes that the medieval mind loved a puzzle, that it was part of public discourse to figure out symbols and the inherent meaning within images. That there was adventure in the act of discovery. And another phrase that struck me: “Grasping reality through sense knowledge.”
Today’s “matter of habit” is problematic when viewing art. For some of my pieces, in particular Universal Sample and my drawings and prints of specimens, the viewing can be rather cursory, a knowing, habitual glance that says, “oh I see what that is”. The glance sums up the object in very simplistic terms. In this case, for the viewer, the specimen represents death or some distasteful high school experience of dissecting a small creature, and nothing more. It is possible to look at visual art not just with visual sense but in partnership with other physical sensations conjured by the image. Looking at the work as if there is more than meets the eye, that there is an underlaying sensibility to the image that references another experience or feeling or bit of knowledge, a smell, a sound…or that of the animal or that of the instance in which the animal finds itself, or the moment that a curious person finds such an animal. Imagining that moment — “What was it like?”
So, I hope that people will approach my artwork with imagination and not as a matter of habit — to look at my work as if it is a bit of a puzzle, not a straightforward statement or concept but more of a string of thoughts, feelings and visual and sensate information to be arranged and rearranged to come to some sort of conclusion or idea about the meaning, however uncertain that may be.
BoB: Do you recall the circumstances of the book’s purchase? What were you doing when you decided to buy it?
DS: I absolutely remember. I was living in London with my spouse and family as part of a study abroad program my spouse was leading. Each day, after all were at school or otherwise occupied, I would head out in pursuit of art, medical museums, natural history oddities or any number of things and on one day I went to the British Library to see an exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. This was an exhibition of the several collections representing centuries of books commissioned by kings and queens and to my delight there were books on medicine, science and nature. After spending a very long time in the exhibition, I went to the gift shop where I found the Eco book. The extraordinary detail of the manuscripts I had just seen and the enormity of the exhibition itself put me in the mood to purchase the book.
BoB: As an artist whose work has an intimate relationship to “the book,” could you describe the effect this has on you when you are reading books in general or when revisiting the Eco book in particular?
DS: In general, when I am reading a book versus the screen of a device, I enjoy the structure of the book and understanding the manner in which it is assembled. The type of binding, the quality of paper, the action of the pages, do they lay flat or do they fight. I find the term “perfect binding” ironic as I am reading a book where the pages are falling out. I typically notice the condition of a book, faded covers, mildew or wear on the edges. Books with these qualities I feel a bit sorry for as I wonder where their next home will be, probably not my local library or the used book store, since here in Ohio, we haven’t many of those. Maybe they will live a short while at the Goodwill Thrift Store and from there, the recycle bin. Books are a bit like an endangered species and I am at times concerned that the youth (I have one at home) are only relating to books as they are required to do so at school and not as a place of refuge, ideas and travel. It is hard for books to compete with the ever-present screen and digital speed of information and interaction.
The Eco book in particular is a pathway back to London, to other centuries, to a time when art was the screen of the day and to the Royal manuscript exhibition. The books in the exhibition survived over centuries; the hours and hours of skill, artistry and dedication it took to not only create the books but to also preserve them gives me pause. The Eco book itself is not a great work of craftsmanship as an object, it is, after all, bound as a “perfect binding”. Still, it has not fallen apart yet, so the binders must have used a better-quality glue. Instead, the Eco book is a vessel of ideas and murmurs of what it meant to have art and beauty in one’s life hundreds of years ago. What are my intentions when opening a book? To be lifted away from the present, to enter another time period or another person’s circumstance or to be visually transported.
BoB: Turning the question on its head, when the act of creating a work rather than the act of reading is in flight, how do books feed your working process?
DS: For my series on Darwin, all seemed to fall into a flawless moment. I happened upon dozens of petri dishes and had already been thinking about Darwin’s 200th birthday. It is an instance of form and content playing together without much conflict or negotiation. From that came many books that really seemed to define themselves both in structure and content.
My books built into petri dishes are a different viewing experience for people because the dish itself is so familiar and suddenly the viewer finds the dish in an unusual circumstance, that of being a book. People pause, take notice and naturally ask questions, they seem unleashed from any customary reaction or habit and are open to an idea. The dish is an entry to figuring out a puzzle and not a barrier, such as an image of a dead bird or a dissected lizard might be.
The first books (Cell: Compendium) were in direct response to various nearby communities that were pushing for “creationism” to be taught in the public schools. The petri dish is a universal item repositioned and viewers find it humorous, unique or “creative” and while some stop there, most people are prompted to go further. The recognition of the petri dish spurs and opens the door to more meaningful connections and interpretations.
Mostly however, when making my art work, initially the book structure is secondary, a simple vehicle for the content. Imagery, content, text and the oblique narrative story are primary and the development of the images and content are the key portions of my studio work. I use other books in my work, discarded textbooks and spines, for instance, that I take apart and rework. I also use books as reference, looking for a word or phrase, a bit of information to jumpstart a narrative about a topic I am interested in. I borrow science imagery to create and integrate with my own images. I am an observational artist and that includes observing via books as well as nature.
Once the content and images are in motion, the book structure comes into play and that is when the many possibilities of the structure interact with the content and it is really the most significant challenge of creating an artist book. I do not like to use book forms for the simple novelty of the structure or for the entertainment factor (for instance a pop-up or tunnel book) unless of course it really fits the topic. I want viewers to focus on the images and feeling or message of the work, so the book structure becomes, is, or should be a thoughtful object that houses an idea or an experience, it is in service to the artist, to the viewer, it invites the viewer in and then steps aside.
BoB: Let’s turn to Universal Sample in some more detail. I’d like to ask you to comment on the intersection between the words in Universal Sample (“universal” and “sample”, “chance” and “order”, “moment” and “decay”) as well as the intersection of the words with the prints, their color, the paper you used, and the star structure.
DS: First, let me say the entire book, the six images and the text, is meant to present obliquely a life cycle of early life forms. The images are inspired by my own source material comprised of many drawings of specimens that I did at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
The title, Universal Sample, is singular and expansive. A sample is one bit of something larger that is collected and taken from a whole and isolated, universal represents a larger inclusive whole. In this case “Sample” is not numbered or identified. It is in relationship to all else, is composed of and is evidence for all else.
Dispersal – Begins the book and alludes to creation.
Vestigial – Ends it and alludes to remains.
Chance – In part I feel the world is a chaotic place where the intentional can be overcome by chance and luck, circumstance and happenstance.
Order – This is about human systems (religious, scientific) within a chaotic world and about the molecular combining and recombining relative to evolution over millions of years which bring about reasonable order within an ever-changing environment.
When I place the words “chance” and “order” together, I am referencing religion as a human system attempting to bring order to chaos, to explain the inexplicable. The images progress from an unidentified plasma or bubbly life form to a life form that appears to be lizard like, one of the early animal forms on earth. One print shows three lizards, a trinity of sorts, impaled perhaps, especially as specimens might be. Floating, they represent the substance, atom, molecules, electrons, neutrons that I know exist versus the Trinity as espoused by Christianity that I am not so certain about. In this way, I am harking back to the root of an entire body of work that I have made that draws upon Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Moment and Decay are read together with the image of a frog, a frog that is decomposing, reordering and redistributing its cells. I want the text to key viewers into the idea of a space, gap, a line or moment when decay begins. The last print is of an imaginary cellular structure of a life form as it is releasing and redistributing entirely into another space whether that is air, dirt or water or the space beyond our stratosphere.
The book structure, font and print size and paper choices are all subject to various constraints, such as paper and press bed size, size of copper, or availability of type face at the printmakers cooperative where I do my printing. For this book, I worked the structure of the book, image and text placement and layout simultaneously with content development and made at least a few small mock-ups to help me see the possibilities, resolve problems and keep me on track. I like book structures that are straightforward and that are an entry to the images and content. Sometimes, as with the Cell books, the structure is integral to the content of the work. For Universal Sample, what was going to be a simple accordion changed as I saw that the images and text could offer different ways in which to view and read the book. The star structure which consists of a series of three-page short accordions sewn into a concertina spine is elegant, seems like a standard book, a good frame for the images and when opened it can go beyond being a standard book and be manipulated and reconsidered.
BoB: Where next with your art?
DS: I like anything that can be described as a collection, the more personal and odd, the better, and I find opportunities to visit natural history or medical museums when I can. Currently, I am finishing a book object that incorporates several of my drawings of backyard specimen finds. This work includes test tubes and refers to the challenge of birds to avoid hazards and remain undetected. I am also thinking about a series of artist books that somehow reveal the dozens, hundreds, thousands of birds that are housed in the drawers of collecting institutions.
BoB: With thanks to Diane Stemper for her time and reflection. To enjoy more of her work, see her site and also:
Diane Stemper received her B.F.A. in printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute and a M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts from San Francisco State University. Her work is included in the Artists’ Book Collections of: DAAP Library, University of Cincinnati, Ohio; Main Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Cincinnati, Ohio; Special Collections, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio; and the Lucille Little Fine Arts Library, University of Kentucky.