When you enter “The World as Text” at Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts, artist John Preus’s reading room vies for your attention with the dozens of artists’ books and zines that it houses.
A collaboration with students at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Preus’s design relates furniture’s tension between form and function to the way we read and interpret text: Tilted tables and nightstands become bookshelves, and absurdly long legs extend two chairs almost 20 feet off the ground.
One can actually sit down in the gallery—on benches built from repurposed subway chairs—so I spent an afternoon sifting through the impressive publications that the show’s guest curators have assembled. Here are a few of my favorites:
Art-Rite no. 14, Winter 1976/77. This issue of the radical magazine Art-Rite was devoted to the art of the book. A reader poll asks, “What attracts you to artists’ books?” All of the respondents, who include John Baldessari, Sol LeWitt, Lucy Lippard and Adrian Piper, allude to accessing a community through artists’ books in a way that one can’t through other media. We can pass the books from hand to hand, take them home with us and revisit them over and over again. Artists’ books combine all the things we love about our ragged, oft-read paperbacks with the visceral experience of a work of art.
Jayson Scott Musson, Too Black for B.E.T. I & II (Free News Press), 2008. “Put down those Harry Potter books and get with this grown up shit, boy boy.” Racism, sexism and downright crudeness seem to characterize the broadsides collected in this ironic volume, but Musson’s surprise attack is integral to the reading room experience: Artists’ books lie unassumingly on shelves and tables, until we open them and are intimately confronted by hard-to-swallow ideas.
Kurt Allerslev, Mesopotamia (Organik), 2009. Okay, not all of these books can be passed from hand to hand. Allerslev’s Mesopotamia is a weighty tome more than two feet square, with thick leathery pages encrusted with yellow, orange and brown paint. Its covers are bound in the bark from a chokecherry tree that the author cut down in New York state. The few handwritten lines running along the bottom of its 12 pages tell a formless story about the origins of human mark-making, describing images that shift into text and hazy references to prehistoric cave painting, like a herd of antelopes “writing” their way across the horizon and yellow handprints. It’s a good example of how artists’ experiments can render books impractical but beautiful.
Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide (Badlands Unlimited & Creative Time Books), 2011. Visitors can read Chan’s e-book on one of two iPad reading stations. There’s a coldness to reading on a computer screen, without the weight and texture of an actual book. But going digital allows Chan to include numerous images related to his incredible production of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot in post-Katrina New Orleans. And even the 1970s pioneering book artists might not have dreamed of the e-book’s extreme take on portability.
Edie Fake, Gaylord Phoenix no. 5, 2010. Fake’s skills as an artist and storyteller help Gaylord Phoenix demonstrate the amazing potential of zines. Simple screenprinted pages bound by staples yield a story about self-reflection, sexuality and journeying through inner and outer worlds. Fake pushes the edge with some stellar visual ideas, fusing comics and Mayan art. He shows that zines can stay true to the essential elements of the artist’s book praised in Art-Rite, as they promote freedom of expression, community building, and an intimate connection between viewer and artist.
Center for Book and Paper Arts curator Jessica Cochran leads a tour of "The World as Text" Tuesday 19 at 6pm.