Finding Book-Ness: ABC at CSU
Once books were simply vehicles, carrying the information they contained. For centuries, they were the most efficient way to traffic in words and pictures. In these digital days they still do that, but they have other functions, too: They are monuments to those ideas, celebrations, commemorations, and elaborations on them. They are a way not just to pass words and pictures around the society (which we can do much more efficiently and with greater contagion using the internet) but to ennoble those ideas by rendering them physically, and–by the sensual properties of paper, ink, and other materials–amplify the experience. They are also a starting point for exploring form, purpose, and definition of what exactly a book is.
Those are among the ideas on display in Art Books Cleveland’s exhibit, on view August 31 through October 5 in the Galleries at CSU.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Bonne DeBlas, Amy Fishbach, and Melissa O’Grady got together over pizza to create Art Books Cleveland, to “explore, encourage, and teach both contemporary and traditional artistic practices of the hand-made book.” ABC celebrates the anniversary not with an origin story, but with an exhibit that surveys contemporary art book making in the region, through the practice of its members. ABC at Ten: A Retrospective Exhibit is an ecclectic show, with room for just about every understanding of what a physical, handmade book can be.
Indeed, the idea of words or pictures on pages to be turned in order is only a starting point. In the ABC show there certainly are conventional books bound in a spine with information on pages to be turned, but also accordion folded books, scrolls, objects that resemble those folded, fortune-telling games kids used to make on the school yard, whimsical machines for opening or closing a volume or turning its pages, and sculptural things, both with turn-able with pages and without.
I made note of this all-inclusive diversity in conversation with Laura Martin, an ABC member who has several works in the show. “What exactly is an art book?” is at least an approximation of what I asked. As Laura said, an art book is an object that has “book-ness.”
Fair enough. And this exhibit surely has that. There are a few forms that come up regularly in art books, perhaps chief among them the “abecedario,” or an alphabet book. Among Martin’s contributions to the show is her accordion folded Phobia Alphabet, presented in the round like a dark star. In hand-written ink on black paper with pictures in various materials, she illustrates fears, from Apeirophobia (the fear of infinity) to Zemmiphobia (fear of the great mole rat). It’s not a bad answer to Edward Gorey’s macabre 1963 ABC book, the Gashleycrumb Tinies.
Also on the dark side is Bonne de Blas’s “The Opposite of Zenith,” a black-on-black volume of handmade papers adorned with cut-out symbols and “text” that resembles stitches. The zenith of something is its high-point; the opposite of that, its “nadir,” obviously a low. The darkness of this piece reveals that we’re not just talking about mountains and valleys here, but emotions and life challenges.
Both of these would count among the more conventional entries in this show. On the other end of the spectrum, Bette Bonder’s entries are as much about sculpture as they are “book-ness”–sculpture made of paper, with pages to turn or peer into, and words and pictures on them, but works which really depends on context for the viewer to think of them as books. Her “Carousel” was inspired by a wedding at the Western Reserve Historical Society, which is home to the Euclid Beach carousel. Her “Three Little Drops of Water” is based on her memory of a song from childhood. It has three panels folded into a structure, creating within it a cloud world. Visible through a cut-out window are the titular drops of water, suspended by thread from two wooden skewers, from which also hang small, books, the text of the song written by hand, illustrated with pencil and crayon.
Diane Britt’s works also push the meaning of what the structure of a book is. For most of book history, the most important thing books did was efficiently package information for disemination. In Britt’s work, books celebrate their contents with structures that amplify or add to what’s inside. Among her entries are three pop-up books created with wooden machines that open and close them. You turn a crank; wheels functioning as eccentric cams open and close the covers, and so the folded paper flowers pop up and bloom. The contents are flower poems by Emily Dickinson and Ezra Pound. One contains Pound’s tiny, imagist landmark, In a Station of the Metro: “The aparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” It’s as if the words printed on a single page with no more fanfare than that would not suffice to communicate the importance and beauty of what the machine delivers.
Ellie Strong’s entry also serves to ennoble someone else’s work. Strong is one of the region’s most celebrated professional bookbinders and conservators, and she plied her skill to re-binding the program of the Ninth Gay Games, held in Cleveland in 2014. Strong runs her business, Strong Bindery, in a studio at Loganberry Books on Larchmere. Years ago I asked her to teach me a bit about book binding so that I could improve my own skills, and in one of those conversations she told me a lot of the books that come to her for preservation are heirloom volumes—bibles, yearbooks, and other books that families hold dear and pass along from generation to generation because they are, each in their way, sacred. Her Gay Games program is in that tradition: It’s bound in black pig skin, with inlays and overlays of goat, calf, and sheep leather, forming a rainbow sillhouette of the Terminal Tower. In the upper right corner, it’s hot-stamped GG9. The end sheets are stunning marbled paper by Minneapolis-based, master marbler Steve Pittelkow, who teaches periodically at the Morgan Conservatory.
The “altered book” is another staple of the book arts world, and Gene Epstein’s work in that realm is meticulous, turning old books into a new medium of their own. Epstein uses the structure of a book—the “text block” of pages—as raw material, specifically for minor variation that create a major effect: By folding or cutting page after page, layer after layer, she creates sculptural objects that bloom, reveal depth, or create new geometric forms. Her entry in the show at CSU opens on the image of a red- and orange pool of lava in the crater of a volcano. A person standing on the edge here is either a reckless thrillseeker or a doomed sacrifice. She puts the viewer more in touch with that perspective by superimposing over the hot landscape two hands made by cutting through layer after layer of paper so that the hands have sculptural relief: they become craters themselves.
Susie Cobbledick’s entry –a dyptich of two tablets containing matrices of information—might seem like a stark, modernist interpretation of what a book is, but it also reaches way back into the history of documenting and communicating stories. Lucy and Agatha refers to two early Roman martyrs. According to the story, Lucy’s torture included having her eyes cut out, and Cobbledick’s work acknowledges that with its matrix of objects that look like eyeballs. The two works together are remniscient of the stone tablets upon which Moses received the Christian Ten Commandments.
Thanks to the Internet, books are no longer the most efficient way to pass around stories, poetry, pictures, and other knowledge. ABC at Ten shows a happy, surprise byproduct of that: a kind of liberation. Books are no longer duty bound, forced into roles by job expectations. It’s as if in retirement they are free to travel and explore their desires and rediscover youth. With the Morgan Conservatory and Zygote Press both providing tools and raw material for book artists, and with Loganberry Books bringing together a bookstore, gallery, and Strong Bindery, Cleveland is uncommonly rich in resources to fuel that rediscovery. Here’s wishing Art Books Cleveland ten-times-ten more years to celebrate this enduring and monumentally important form.