San Diego artist Renee Richetts worked in ceramics for 15 years before she realized she was trying to make books out of clay.
"I had a very strong narrative line I was trying to get across in clay," she says. "It wasn't working for me anymore."
Now she brings her knowledge of ceramics to the book arts, an emerging artistic discipline that is reinventing Barnes & Noble's stock in trade.
An artist's book, as the works of art are called, differs from say, standard copies of Catcher in the Rye, in that the entire piece is the artistic expression, not just the narrative text on the page.
According to Genie Shenk, book artist and instructor at San Diego Mesa College and the Athenaeum School of the Arts in La Jolla: "In the book arts, everything about the book contributes to the content, the meaning or the reader's experience," including materials, text, illustrations and, most notably, structure.
What is a book anyway, but a story and a form? These artists are tweaking both, yet they shy away from attempts to identify what precisely constitutes an artist's book.
"I don't dare do that," says Shenk. To do so, after all, would limit her ability to reinterpret concepts of page, content and readability.
Like standard books, an artist's book requires interactivity-an equivalent of flipping the pages and reading. But with an artist's book, "pages" consist of virtually any two- or three-dimensional items bound together. Assemblage pieces-a sort of three-dimensional collage-might have readers turn pages by opening concealed compartments or unrolling scrolls.
In order to read Carol Schiffelbein's Gone, currently on display at a book arts exhibition at The Next Door Gallery, observers must open a small basket lined with tree bark. Inside, etched onto the cover of a delicate, handmade paper book, is the word "Extinct." It's the artist's poetic treatise on the loss of the natural landscape to strip malls and suburban culture-the sacrifice of Walden for Waldenbooks.
Also on view is an untitled assemblage piece by Nancy Gordon, a book-sized metal sheet covered with corroded nails, a small chisel and a rusty cutting tool as the spine. A tiny metal box reveals a miniature figurine bound in thin copper wire. A rotten piece of fruit skin sags and a pea pod spills its decayed contents-both vulnerable, organic contrasts to the unyielding metal structure. The only bright splash of color in this visceral piece comes from the dirty plastic flesh of a doll's plump arm.
Do these two very distinct works resemble a traditional book? Vaguely, but the context is there.
Structure determines how the observer interacts with these works of art (how the book is read).
A book in the shape of a star with panels facing outward forces the observer to walk around the artwork to read it. Pages might be clothes-pinned to a wire, necessitating a strolling read. Transparent papers can change images and context as the pages are turned. The possibilities are virtually endless, and endlessly virtual.
Richetts, also an instructor at the Arts College International downtown, explores these possibilities. "I'm very interested in formatting," she says. "I'm interested in what are the rules and how to break them."
Her piece, Alter to Spam, III: Aloha, is a box that opens to reveal images of Spam cans and Spam sushi, as well as religious icons, computer keys and jewels, all set against the backdrop of a P.C. motherboard. It's a whimsical piece that plays on an unlucky word whose meaning has evolved from "processed meat thing" to "plague of the American emailer" (definitions my own).
The exhibition's many works demonstrate traditional and novel bookbinding techniques and experimentation, intelligence and humor, the personal and the political.
Richetts says the book arts scene is burgeoning in San Diego, thanks to a "phenomenal resource pool" and a supportive community. Classes are now offered at San Diego State University, Mesa College, Arts College International, the Athenaeum and University of California, San Diego Extension. As more artists become involved and the discipline matures, Richetts predicts that the book artist's book (say that fast five times) may become more defined-through the jury process, for example.
But for now, artists like Richetts are content to push the boundaries: "When you're saying to yourself, what's a book?, and if you're open to [the idea that] if it's in this show, it's a book, it'll blow your mind."
The Next Door Gallery's book art exhibition runs through April 24.
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