Last week Oola and I did a road trip and spent some time camping with California’s biggest and hungriest mosquitoes. Also shared coffee next to some old guys in bicycle spandex. Happily we arrived in the Bay Area itchy but not with too much psychological damage to visit family and friends.
One highlight of the trip was to visit the Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley to catch the tail end of the 13th annual Art of the Book show. This was always a special treat for us when we lived in the Bay Area.
Ascension is a kind of work I mentally associate with the gallery: mythical, magical, meditative, lyrical, both in and out of time, contemporary and ancient all at once. And I was not disappointed.
But, as in any Artist Book related show, there were a wide variety of approaches.
You can click on any image to see an enlargement.
From this angle, Brian Dettmer’s World Books reminds Oola of the curiosity and affection of a baby pangolin focusing its gaze on Suzanne Grey at the desk. But when observed closely, the delicacy and intricacy of Brian’s cutting can only be called amazing. Still, this brings up an issue in the Artist Book world: a book is something that one interacts with physically, intellectually, and emotionally page by page to absorb its content. Brian’s work, from what I have observed, lives more in the camp of the artist book as pure sculpture, not to be touched, only to be admired from a distance.
Another artist, Andrew Hayes, lives in the same camp. He is not interested in conveying story or the content of the book so much as the play of iron with paper. The gestural action of the two Pulp Discourse pieces is something one feels viscerally. They certainly are beautiful and noteworthy forms, but not to be touched.
Once, while I was working as an artist in California Prisons, I brought some clay to the AIDS ward. I put lumps out on the table for the guys who gathered around and seemed interested. Naive as I was, I said “show me the inner man” and they got all poetic with their clay because that is what they thought I wanted. One fellow, however, was having none of my foolishness. At the end of the hour he presented me with his “Intestine Man”.
Valérie Buess‘s works in this show reminded me of that incident, of the hardshell-covered vulnerability of the men, and their humor even in that musty place. At least, I want to believe that her work Prescious Capsule is about vulnerability. Here is a case where the tactile wants to tell truth to the hand.
Valérie’s work Regulations is hilarious. It is spun from books documenting changes in the law. In the words of the artist, they “hold/hide their meaning very tightly, shut in the words…twirled, spiky and barbed”.
Jaz Graf‘s piece, Inheritance, consists of letterpress on porcelain pages spread out on the wall by means of steel hangers. Each pages says “nous sommes simplement de passage”, or “we are only here for a moment’s time”. This is a reminder of the intimacy of a book in a public place. I love the artist’s statement that a book is “the ghost limb of an author, but more importantly it becomes an extension of the reader’s body and experience.”
Traditional books by their definition need words to convey content. Artist Books, not so much. Lisa Kokin‘s work in this show uses words that have no semantic content. Just thread and recycled objects and, like she says, “shpilkes” or nervous energy.
Renée Bott works to paint out the words from narratives about human cruelty. She paints the beauty of the natural world seeking to discover a future where humans live in harmony with it.
Tamar Stone tells stories of women in their own words as they travel alone in troubled times. Her use of traditional text in low contrast or on distracting background makes the words seem camouflaged. The reader has to become intensely involved with unmaking, reading, then remaking the layers of the bed. These secret stories require effort to enjoy.
In Macy Chadwick‘s Meanwhile words from A Thousand and One Nights swirl through the book like a murmuration of starlings.
While in the gallery I heard another visitor ask “What’s with all the guns?”. Our society and culture is in the grips of a huge gun struggle and with ever-increasing frequency we convulse under the weight of a new outrage. It is on everyone’s mind. I think it necessary for artists to deal with the subject.
This show presents two artists who talk about this obsession in two different ways. The first is Brian Singer (above) who presents the guns of historical assassinations. He prints images of the guns of specific events on pages of books about the event. He cuts the paper into blocks which he turns on their sides. The images of guns appear as delicate drawings on obscured lines of text (as in the detail image above). I did not see it, but evidently with each image comes an indexing of the name of the person killed, the type of gun, and the name of the shooter. I have a couple of thoughts on this series. I think the artist misses the mark here. The “how” outweighs the “what”. I am not a fan of ambiguity in social/historical art like this. I am disappointed in this series in that it does not address the horror and helplessness we felt when we heard that the President or Martin or Bobby was shot.
Further, having worked (as an artist) in California prisons, I have learned that there is a social ranking among criminals as to who is the baddest outlaw of all. There are people who do terrible things with the goal of fame in mind. I have met them, made art in the same room as them. Other prisoners cluster around them as though they were movie stars from whom some of the fame might rub off. So I take issue with the parts of this series that names the shooter — thus, inadvertently we hope, glorifying them. The best (worst) thing that can happen to these individuals is that they, as persons, become utterly forgotten and unnamed in the world.
The second artist in the show to speak of shootings is Audrey Wilson. Shooting Range is about the Columbine slaughter. She puts her emphasis on the deaths of young people in school where we should be able to expect that they are as safe as anyone can be on this planet. Shooting Range is as different as it can be from the assassination series. It is neon, hard edged, political, urgent — and personal.
This show is closed now and I couldn’t write about all the wonderful work. You can see the show catalog on line.
But, if you are in the area, take heart!
Chris Gwaltney: And Another Thing…
June 1 – July 1, 2018
Reception for the artist:
Saturday, June 9, 5:30 – 7:30 pm
It looks like a show well worth seeing.
108 Throckmorton Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Tuesday through Saturday,
11am – 5:00pm, Sunday 12 – 5pm