Book art is a hard thing to display. Unlike painting, it’s three-dimensional. Unlike sculpture, it has moving parts and can’t be completely seen from any one angle. And unlike most other visual art forms, it involves language and text on a deeply profound level, implying an interaction with the viewer that should ideally go beyond the visual and into the tactile and cognitive.
So setting it up inside a Lucite case and slapping a label on it just doesn’t cut it for book art.
Yet at the Collins Library at the University of Puget Sound, which consistently brings excellent book art to Tacoma, the space, budget and lack of watchful attendants don’t allow for much else.
So what to do?
For “Horizons,” the current show of national-quality book art from the Guild of Book Workers, the answer is still floating around somewhere, possibly in the digital space. Library director Jane Carlin has organized the dozens of works in thoughtful groupings, pairing themes, contrasting media and form. But you can’t escape the fact that these are sculptural objects that hold half of their beauty and eloquence inside, where you can’t see it unless you are physically lifting covers, turning pages, even spinning handles.
Take Suzanne Moore’s “The First Circle.” The Vashon Island artist and calligrapher, famous for her work illustrating the giant new edition of the St. John Bible that visited Tacoma Art Museum, has created a gorgeous folio-size work based on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Circles” essay. The page displayed flat in the Collins has the text about the eye being the first circle, the horizon the second streaking across it in tall white calligraphy, with slender stems and that lovely blend of medieval formality and contemporary excitement that is Moore’s signature. Behind the text is a wash of monoprinted circle-arcs, crisply fragmented in magenta and aqua like a bright sunrise, and wide brushstrokes like clouds of color blurring the edges of certainty.
What’s on the other pages? Hard to tell. The exhibition’s website, guildofbookworkers.org, shows one more image on Moore’s exhibitor subpage, but that’s all. She doesn’t seem to have a website of her own (the GBW link is faulty). So you just have to guess.
There are many such tantalizing moments in “Horizons,” mostly because this work is so skillfully executed and imaginatively designed. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill art books, and most hold secrets not visible from the display case.
Thomas Parker Williams has, in “Traveler No. 1,” made a scroll book housed in a wooden box edged in wavy mirrors, whose journey of drawings from mountain to sea can be seen if you turn a silver handle to operate the scrolling mechanism. It’s a lovely take on an old-fashioned concept that predates film — except, of course, you can’t touch the handle. With a couple of clicks you can reach a video of the scrolling on Williams’ website, but this leads to another point, which is that the QR codes that accompany each piece on the label, and supposedly link back to more explanations online, don’t work through the glass at an odd angle. Maybe a digital frame looping Williams’ video might help, somewhere close by?
Other books also hint at hidden beauty. Susan Share’s “Midnight Sun” channels an Alaskan sunset in a codex of tall, narrow pamphlets in stripes of gray, gold, pink and deep indigo, tightly bound. What does it look like unfurled? Or can it be? What’s inside the wide, white pages of “Tamalpais Walking,” Coleen Curry’s subtle ode to her home landscape whose sage-green bindings are inlaid with a collage of dried horsetails and lizard skin? Impossible to tell; the website image is just the cover, and the book itself is closed. From the website image you can kind of imagine the undulating horizon line cut thickly into the snow-white pages of Wendy Withrow’s “42nd Parallel,” a visual description of the line from California to Massachusetts. But in the show the pages are held together with tape — naturally enough, to protect the art, but imagine an app with an electronic version of this that lets you flick through images of the pages on your phone or tablet right there in the gallery, watching the sculpted line move through the pages’ density.
Other books tantalize with text. Dennis Phillips’ poetry inside Rebecca Chamlee’s “Study for the Possibility of Hope” matches perfectly with her simple, letterpress typeface and flower images and cover that opens up into an entire hillside. I would have liked to read the whole thing, but it’s not on either Chamlee’s nor Phillips’ nor the GBW site.
Yet there are many works in “Horizons” that bare all their secrets up front, whether in stunningly handcrafted bindings, clever formats or evocative art pages. Heather Bain binds “The Silmarillion” in black leather painted with gold and silver Tolkienesque trees, the page edges beautifully rendered like a sky of gold-and-green stars. Samuel Feinstein does a similar service for a book of Holbein engravings, tooling and gilding his goatskin covers with flames and locked hearts.
Others create purely sculptural objects with blank pamphlet pages radiating out of a central binding: Monica Holtsclaw bends the black binding of “The Frontier Horizon” into a circle; Graham Patten binds his circular gold-edged pamphlets with red cord like an African headdress; Peggy Johnston stitches semicircular maps dyed in blue-green into a curved hemisphere of ocean. The tiny paper plane hovering over it does give scale, but cheapens it a little.
Others use creative, nonbook media. Emily Tipps folds her tiny ovoid pages, dyed translucent gray like honesty seedpods, into an egg-gourd like an expanding yolk. Susan Bonthron prints Billy Collins’ poem “Horizon” onto pale blue acetate pages set into indigo frames; together they fold accordion-style into a box inset with a watercolor horizon of sea and sky, visible through text and page.
And the ultimate in cleverness: Christopher McAfee’s “Infinities,” a rendering of mathematical and poetic explanations of infinity onto eight chalkboard pages, each of which holds a single oval hole. When closed, these holes allow two oval mirrors in the inside front and back covers to infinitely reflect each other — a beautifully physical way of expressing a very cerebral concept.
For all the pages left unseen, “Horizons” is still an astonishing show, exploring the theme with complexity and beauty. It only has 10 more days at the Collins — don’t miss it.
UPS book art
What: “Horizons”: Triennial exhibition of Guild of Book Workers
What is in the show: More than 50 pieces representing a variety of contemporary book arts and fine binding that are based on the theme of the show.
Local connections: Three Northwest artists have work in the show: Susan Collard, Monica Holtsclaw, and Suzanne Moore. Moore lives on Vashon Island and is a world-renowned calligrapher and illuminator, known internationally for her work on the St. John Bible.
Where: Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma
When: 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday; closed Saturday; then 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday, 7:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. March 28, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. March 29 and 30
Information: 253-879-3669, pugetsound.eduRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com