Consisting of eight cards or leaves held together by a folder, this small work falls within the defined limits of the miniature book, according to the Miniature Book Society (US). It seems to fit better the looser mould of conceptual art. After the first or second leaf, the joke — “For ‘this character’s name‘ use ‘the name of the thing into which the character is turned‘” — is clear: metamorphosis = erratum. But the tongue-in-cheekiness goes beyond the title and text wordplay.
“Errata” is an anatomical part of the book, but this work is larger than the usual book part — an errata slip — and while smaller than a book, it lays claim to be a book. What seems to be one thing is also another. Its binding is a folder, the “cover” illustration (upper left) is a broken pillar, an erratum of sorts, and each erratum appears on a “loose leaf” — much like a portfolio of prints. The roots of “portfolio” are portāre (to carry) and folium (leaf), but given that the Latin for “door” is foris, isn’t it a near homonymic pun that the “title page” (upper right) shows a forum-like portal, a door opening on the leaves that follow? What seems to be one thing could be another.
With two pages taken up by the title page and colophon, there are only six errata (for Atys, Cyane, Daphne, Echo, Narcissus and Philomela). Why only six? Is Finlay, like many conceptual artists, leaving it to the viewer to complete the work? What if the curious and obsessed return to the Metamorphoses to come up with the other “errata” in the tales (Cyparissus, Myrrha, Perdix, Syrinx and all the rest)? But hang on: if the curious and obsessed carry on and mentally correct all of the errata, won’t Ovid’s Metamorphoses be “corrected“, or metamorphosed, out of existence? And when there are no more errata, how could there be a work called The Errata of Ovid?
A few years after the publication of The Errata of Ovid, Finlay drew up ”Six Proposals for the Improvement of Stockwood Park Nurseries in the Borough of Luton”, which included a caprice with a wall and plaques. The wall in Stockwood Park stands today, presenting the text of The Errata of Ovid engraved in eight stone plaques (minus the colophon but with the addition of “For ‘Adonis’ read ’Anemone’”). Did Finlay imagine the park’s visitors standing before the wall like stone sculptures themselves smiling or frowning at the concrete poet’s wit?
Hincks’ India-ink-drawn illustrations — especially those for Cyane and Narcissus — are delicate and rough at the same time. The two for Cyane and Narcissus in particular warrant a close look for their representation of reflections in water, perhaps the most metamorphic element, Nature’s closest instance of metaphor and metamorphosis.
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”?
Silenda (2015) 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) Marian Meerbeek Photos: Books On Books
Not far off in appearance from Silenda or Nous. But the effect on the viewer differs, and the ExLibris 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.
At the end of a year when we have been reminded that creative works of merit often issue from the dungheap, The Guardian reports that Rome’s city council has decided to revoke the 8 AD exile of Publius Ovidius Naso. Ovid whiled away his time in the backwater of the Black Sea composing the Tristia and The Black Sea Letters, respectivelybewailing in couplets his condition and pleading with the recipients of his letters to intervene with the emperor.
We don’t know what “carmen et error” (poem and mistake) caused Augustus to banish Ovid. But should the city council have focused on the works rather than the man? Does great art justify “rehabilitation”? Who knows.
At least the news prompts a new look at Jacqueline Rush Lee‘s transformation of the Tristia and Black Sea Letters.
By its compressed and sealed form, reticulation and shifting colors, The First Cut evokes Ovid’s epic poem about “bodies which have been transformed into shapes of different kinds.” The words and stories of the three Loeb Library volumes are locked away beneath the bent covers in the penetrating and embracing furls and whorls of the pages. Much like the human cries and feelings of the subjects transformed into mute trees and senseless stones in Ovid’s tales of the awful and the tender, the terrifying and beautiful, the violent and loving.
The end-on image looks like a cross section of a tree, appropriate for the work material’s etymology: Old English bōc, Dutch boek, German Buch, and Gothic bōka. Highly appropriate, in fact, as the artist whimsically devised this form of sculpture as
a result of an ongoing series of work started in 2013 in which [she] inserted a sculptural book form into the cavity of a tree to simulate a whorl in a tree hollow. What was initially an artistic, whimsical gesture became one where conditions were set in action, and consequently, over time the books returned to their botanical origins and were gradually subsumed by nature. The books changed state; at first “painted’ by a natural patina of mold in which the colours mutated and muted over time. The forms then became petrified and wood-like, with traces of their former texts still present, but like cultural artifacts: positing how time, changing weather conditions, and insect activity would finally affect the narrative of the original work. As iconic vessels of culture, knowledge, and classification systems, WHORL resonates as an imprint on how we leave our mark on nature, and how nature eventually leaves its mark on us a larger, comprehensive system at work.
In the following commissioned work — based on Ovid’s Tristia — the artist has applied the technique from her 2007 inked series “… when [she] was also working with the sculptural and expressive qualities of paint and sumi-e ink. Referencing page layering, and the earlier faded ink fore edges of [her] Volumes series..this work invokes the meditative through the act of applying ink and obliterating meaning to create new meaning.”
The Tristia consists of letters and meditations that Ovid sent to Rome from Tomis on the Black Sea Coast, where the Emperor Augustus had exiled him for what Ovid mysteriously calls his carmen et error (poem and mistake). Silenda is from the Latin for “mysteries” and “that which must be kept silent.” The ink-saturated and unfurled pages of Silenda echo the poet’s black despair, the barrenness of exile, and the scarlet edging echoes his bleeding heart.
The sister work referred to in the caption is shown below.
In informal usage, nous means common sense or practical intelligence; in its more formal philosophical usage (from the Greek), it means the mind, intellect or intuitive apprehension. The artist’s alliance of title, technique and material here enriches the work but also presents the viewer of Nous and Silenda with questioning insight into book art.
Since the technique has blacked out the volume’s essays on central issues in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, and ethics, as well as debates over the value of philosophy and the meaning of life, of course there is “no why Here”. Rush Lee is an exceptionally witty artist, so I wonder whether the pun also arises from the absence of a section on Aesthetics in the Feinberg anthology.
But that’s not the main query that Nous and Silenda taken together prompt. Both works are so similar in appearance that they could be mistaken for one another. For book art in which the innovative technique yields such similarity of works, how should we react to pieces where meaningful distinction is implicit in such differences in the material used that can only be known from labels that may or may not accompany the works? If we were to switch the labels of these two works, would we “mis-appreciate” them?
I think we would. Despite the close technical similarities of these two works, my reaction to each is enriched by knowing those differences and matching the choice of title of the work to the material used. That is a lesson I would apply even to works titled “Untitled” — the lesson really being to look harder, even beyond the “why”.
Jacqueline has been working with books for fifteen years and is recognized for working with the book form. Her artworks are featured in blogs, magazines, books and international press. Selected bibliography include: BOOK ART: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books; PAPERCRAFT: Design and Art with Paper and PLAYING WITH BOOKS: The Art of Up cycling, Deconstructing, and Reimagining the Book. Jacqueline’s work will also be featured in Art Made from Books, Chronicle Press, 2013 by Laura Heyenga. … She exhibits her artwork nationally and internationally and her work is in private and public collections, including the Allan Chasanoff Book Under Pressure Collection, NY.
The Chasanoff collection connects Lee with Doug Beube, whose work has been noted here. Beube was the curator of the Chasanoff Collection from 1993 to 2011. In his interview with Judith Hoffberg in Umbrella, Vol 25, No 3-4 (2002), he comments on the purposes of Allan Chasanoff, a book artist in his own right, in putting together the collection The Book Under Pressure:
There are a number of ideas that meets Allan’s criteria in acquiring work, of which I’ll try to convey a couple. The first is; the problem of the book to perpetuate information is inefficient, it’s an obsolete technology due to the advent of the computer. Another premise is; at the latter part of the 20th century the book is being used for purposes other than its utilitarian design. Allan has been working extensively with computers and digital imaging since 1985 and understands that the book is as “an outdated modality”, he’s fond of saying. He’s not interested in the book decaying or in its destruction, nor is he referring to the content of books, artist’s books, production costs, mass appeal or where they get exhibited. His interest is in the book as an antiquated technology.
Lee’s process of kiln firing to transform individual books, as with the dictionary above, strikes a harmonious chord. The kiln does not reduce the book to ash but rather petrifies it. Another way of exploring “the book under pressure.” Lee’s and Beube’s work are brought together again by Paul Forte at the Hera Gallery for an exhibition entitled Transformed Volumes.