Book Marks

A wealth of wit, literary references and life's big themes are on show in the current exhibition at E17 Art House. Those literary references are particularly apt as the exhibition is entitled Book Marks, and is part of Walthamstow's inaugural literary festival, Words Over Waltham Forest.

Paens to literature, reading and writing in the exhibition include quick-witted visual puns (an orange with a piece of clockwork inserted where its stem should be), conceptual riffs on the sanctity of literature (a Bible which warns that God is watching you via a security camera in the front cover, another with legislature scrawled over chapter and verse), and the more straightforward, though no less charming (sculptures and photographs of readers enjoying a quiet moment with a good book).

From the moment of glancing at the title of How To Deal With Problematic Neighbours, the reader's mind is set racing guessing what the solution may be. Its contents are almost predictable, though still tickle the funny bone; a pistol conveniently concealed inside for dispatching with annoying acquaintances.

J. Thomas's artist's book was one of a number of offerings lining what I affectionately refer to as 'Conceptual Corner' in the exhibition, and is the next door neighbour of my contribution. Big Teeth, the artist's book which consumed me for around a month and a half, is a hand sewn exploration of the women's language of cloth in fairytales, and of what happens after happily ever after.

To the right hand side of Big Teeth was another artist's book, this time for sale in an edition. Subtitles (of Life and Death) by David Barette also happened to be my favourite piece in the show.

It's a simple idea; collate quotations on life and death in the form of screenshots and subtitles from a variety of classic films. But it works. 

The screenshots take the form of postcards that one could "cut (or rather, pull) out and keep", or keep as a complete work of art. Perhaps it appeals particularly to me as part of an image, iconography, pop culture obsessed generation; the Tumblr generation, if you will. It's certainly very accessible and instantly gratifying.

Between the Lines by Wendy McMillan, UK Law transcribed over Biblical Text

1984 by Francis Long

Insect Travellers Author/artist unknown. This artist's book disperses advice and adages alongside scientific illustrations of insects.

Bible Cam - God is watching YOU by Pure Evil

Genre - Mystery by Hannah Battershell. What tales could this abandoned typewriter tell?

A Soul of a New Machine by Jonathan Thomas
The artist E. J. England uses  book covers as their canvases; of course, one would need to read the words enclosed within to know whether these paintings are illustrative, or what is suggested to the artist by the books' titles.

The Stars Look Down by E. J. England. Gouache paint on vintage book.

The Lion by E. J. England. Gouache paint on vintage book

Of Love and Other Demons by Divya Venkatesh
I've been in a number of exhibitions with soft sculpture and embroidery artist Harriet Hammel, but the attention to detail and accuracy of her illustrative comic book embroideries exhibited at Book Marks never fails to astonish me.

Beano Embroidery by Harriet Hammel

Dandy Embroidery Fragment by Harriet Hammel
Another favourite piece was Jonathan O'Dea's book-sculpture Burning Back the Layers. Created as a tangible embodiment of the artist's struggles with reading as a dyslexic, the work also reminds the viewer that books come from trees; it reminds us of the lengthy process the materials have undergone in order for a book, perfect and complete, to be placed in our hands. The longer I spent with this piece, the more of its layers I unpeeled; a very appropriately titled work.

Burning Back the Layers by Jonathan O'Dea

Reading by Esther Neslen
This exhibition is rich and beautifully curated, many of the pieces situated in such a way that they have a profound dialogue with one another. I am sure book based art is a genre I will return to time and time again over the course of my career; books are my first love, after all (and what better first love to have?) As one of the art works in the exhibition mused, in the immortal words of Morrissey: "There's more to life than books you know, but not much more." Quite.

Got My Goat

Aside from yesterday afternoon, I honestly can’t remember the last exhibition I went  to. Working at Significant Seams, I am somewhat (almost literally) cocooned in the comforting, cosy world of craft, and could at times almost forget that I have a background in conceptual art, and would indeed primarily consider myself a conceptual artist.
Of course, the line between art and craft is forever permuting. In  A Transatlantic Dialoguethe exhibition I visited at the Ben Uri Gallery, the exhibition notes explained that projects directed by artist Judy Chicago involving craft aimed to elevate this “woman’s work” to its rightful place as art.
Chicago’s career spans more than 5 decades and encompasses a multitude of media, but she is perhaps best known for her work The Dinner Party, first exhibited in 1979, and (in part as a product of The Dinner Party) as a feminist artist.
The Dinner Party, which has remained in residence at the Brooklyn Museum since 2007 and visited London only once, was a project on a grand scale of both skill and imagination. Chicago asked master craftswomen to execute her designs for place settings for an imaginary dinner party which famous historical and mythological women were “invited” to. The craftswomen included potters, ceramicists, embroiderers and seamstresses. In inviting these women to honour women “erased” from history, I feel that Chicago was honouring both the foremothers of modern women, and female craft traditions which have a long lineage and continue to be practised today, whilst placing them in a contemporary art context, thereby forcing society to take a second, much longer look at “women’s work”.
Chicago has been accused by critics of reducing all women to “just vaginas”; that her paintings, drawings and sculptures use the hackneyed female forms of flower-as-butterfly-as-female sex organ. And indeed, there was little subtlety on display here, and this was as much evident in the work of the other transatlantic “speakers”, Tracey Emin, Louise Bourgeois and Helen Chadwick, as Chicago’s! However, there was no doubt that here were four strong, gutsy, fearless women, as vulnerable as their diaristic artworks betrayed them to be.
Reading Emin’s “C.V.” of her tragic early life leading up to her gradual acceptance into the art world and her career gaining momentum was moving, powerful, and inspiring. I was equally touched by Chicago’s Autobiography of a Year, a catalogue of the highs and lows, the mundanity and the ecstasy, of an ageing, but successful, woman artist. In Autobiography, Judy Chicago worries about her husband finding her unattractive, and her ability to make “good” art, amongst other things. I found her emotional honesty deeply endearing and comforting; if this icon of a woman is sometimes weak and fragile (or worse), and yet simultaneously so strong and driven, then I reason that I too can succeed!
Chicago’s line in Autobiography reflects her emotional mood and urgency; intricate yet delicate sketches of trees and flowers accompany texts of calm, and her anger at “the hand that makes bad art” is slopped on to the page with blood red ink. Her sense of colour and its symbolism, and the way this runs through the ebb and flow of the year, is astounding (and I would certainly agree with Chicago that orange is the colour of anxiety!)
The exhibition was so multi-layered and comprised so much of a whistle-stop tour of four prolific artists’ work that it will all take me some time to digest (and I must do some more research on Helen Chadwick’s work!)
On a less cultural note, on our way to the gallery we met a new friend, who was very interested in my boyfriend’s Skittles; a pygmy goat in a school garden! I was adamant that she (I was convinced it was a she; perhaps this had something to do with the exhibition we visiting?) was coming home with me.
photo (1)photo (3)photo (4)
Unfortunately I didn’t get my goat; maybe next time.

A Brief and Incomplete History of Artists' Books

The Libraries and Archives Canada provides a good definition of an artist's book: an artist's book is "not the reproduction of a work of art; it is a work of art in itself".

By this definition the illuminated manuscript The Book of Kells could be conceived of as an artists' book, indeed as a collaborative artists' book as it is thought to have been produced by three monk-artists. However, as The Book of Kells was created in around 800 AD, the term "artists' book" had not yet been coined. However, as the book and fibre artist Gwen J Penner reminds us, "The book as an art form did not begin with the coining of a term and we owe much to early book artists".

The term was perhaps first coined in France at the turn of the 19th century, when such a book was of course known as a "livre d'artiste". A livre d'artiste was an illustrated book the design of which was by the artist themselves, rather than copied from an artist's design. These were commercial, high-end collectible art objects.

An earlier precursor to the artists' book which may better fit the current definition is William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The author wrote, illustrated, and printed this volume of poetry himself in 1789. Blake could not find a publisher willing to let him write, illustrate, and print his own work, and so turned to self-printing and publishing. Blake printed his images and hand-calligraphed text using copper plates, and once printed, he and his wife Catherine painstakingly hand-coloured the images with watercolours.

Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow, plates from Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

In the 1960s, with the advent of conceptual art and Fluxus, artists' books came into their own. For the Fluxus artists, artists' books were a means of disseminating their work outside of the gallery. Similarly, Pop artist Ed Ruscha created artist's books which were inexpensive and widely disseminated, in an attempt to bring his art to a wider audience. 

The artist Deiter Roth, who was associated with the Fluxus movement, created an artist's book called Bok, in which he did away with the codex (the form of the book) in order that the reader could rearrange the pages as they pleased. The V&A's page on artists' books states that "
Roth's distinctive contribution to the genre (of artists' books) was his examination, through his bookworks, of the formal qualities of books themselves" through deconstruction and investigation.

 When I compile the pages of On Being Soft, I intend to make button holes in each page and string them together with ribbon tied in a bow, so that the pages may be rearranged in a similar fashion to those of Roth's Bok.

Poemetrie, Deiter Roth, 1968

Today, the genre of artists' books continues to expand, to include bookworks (typically altered books; books that have been "tampered with", some might say desecrated) and book objects (works which focus on the sculptural qualities and potential of a book rather than its written content).

Jen Bervin

On the more conceptual (rather than figurative) side of embroidery, my CEP tutor has just introduced me to the work of Jen Bervin.

Bervin uses needle and thread to "map"; mapping the punctuation and markings in manuscripts of Emily Dickinson's poetry in The Dickinson Fascicles, mapping the Mississippi in a scale model composed of hand-sewn silver sequins.

The Dickinson Composites, Granary Books, 2010
Unbound pages and sewn samples from the Dickinson Fascicles

The Composite Marks of Fascicles 40, 16, 38, and 34. Sewn cotton batting backed with muslin. Each quilt is 6 ft high by 8 ft wide.
The River (Mississippi Meander Belt). Hand sewn sequins on tyvek, mull, and paper. 230 curvilinear ft, 2010

Bervin seamlessly blends writing and embroidery, using embroidery to embellish and alter the poetry of John Van Dyke with "atmospheric fields of pale blue zigzag stitching to construct a poem “narrated by the air” — “so clear that one can see the breaks.”

Page detail, The Desert, Granary Books, 2008

The Desert follows in the tradition of altered books, the most famous of which is Tom Phillip's A Humument. However, unlike most altered books, where the unwanted text is simply censored or obliterated, the obscured text in The Desert can still be made out through the machine-stitched blue thread. This offers the viewer several different readings.