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Cut-Up 

Barbara Alexandra Szerlip's sculptures dismantle books to show them off

Wednesday, Oct 27 2004
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One of the first lessons we learn as kids when borrowing books from the library is don't fuck them up. Don't write in them, don't put stickers on them, and for God's sake, don't cut their pages. Somewhere in there Barbara Alexandra Szerlip must have heard things a little differently.

Szerlip creates what she calls "book sculptures," which consist of volumes that she has, not to put too fine a point on it, fucked up and then reassembled into miraculous concoctions. Every page might be divided into 10 strips, each one folded back in on itself and glued into some gravity-defying position. Props like dolls, fans, photos, ribbons, copper trinkets, feathers, and other bits and bobs attach themselves to the covers and endpapers, weaving in between the cut pages and turning each piece into a statement -- a witty remark on the title or some other subject, or sometimes on something entirely separate.

When I first caught sight of Szerlip's sculptures -- there's really no other word for them -- my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I've looked at a lot of handmade artists' books (you can see a bunch of them at the Hand Bookbinders of California exhibit at the Main Library starting Nov. 4), but these are some of the most beautiful I've seen. Each piece is clever in some subtle way, and the intricacy of the cutting and rearranging made me want to pick them up one by one and poke my fingers into them to discover their secrets. These works are not cute ("I'm terribly afraid of cute"), not charming (a word Szerlip calls "the kiss of death"), but alluring. And like plain old readable books, you can touch them. Unlike many book artists, Szerlip doesn't treat her works as if they are sacred objects; she doesn't require that I wear cotton gloves while handling them, for instance, and makes an effort to render them "sturdy and archival" by reinforcing the bindings and spraying them with preservatives. But there's understanding in her eyes when she answers my question about destroying books to make her art.

"The idea of cutting up books is ...," she pauses, shaking her head, seemingly at a loss for words. "I'm extremely reverential." Despite the damage, it's not an exaggeration.


Walking into Szerlip's light-filled apartment, an elegantly decaying two-bedroom hidden away off an internal North Beach courtyard, is like stepping into one of her artworks. The first "room" in the place she's lived for 15 years is a tiny covered balcony with paints piled on a low bench, a collection of marble tiles half-covering the floor, wooden gears and circles and pieces of all shapes and sizes leaning against the wall, and, hanging above, a concave window turned into art. As you move into her kitchen, its walls covered with her own oil paintings, a quote painted above the door catches your eye: "She flies with her own wings." A back bedroom is stacked with supplies and picture frames and what Szerlip calls her "antediluvian" tools; even her bathroom, with its paper umbrella on the ceiling and gewgaws on the walls, is like "being inside one of my boxes."

The living room is both her studio and her gallery. Just below the ceiling runs a shelf on which Szerlip rests her sculptures, almost two dozen of them, most (if not all) of which will be included in a two-month display at the funky-cool florist/taxidermy shop Columbine Design in North Beach starting Nov. 1. In the middle of one section is a framed page of Arabic text -- a prayer, Szerlip says, to protect books from being eaten by insects.

Szerlip herself is a wisp of a woman, small and slim and stylish in an almost French way. Today her feet are bare, her auburn hair pulled back and her bangs trimmed straight across her forehead. Her speaking voice is quiet, with what I thought was a vague European accent until she told me she grew up in New Jersey. She's not, as she says, "a girly-girly kind of person," which is not to say that she's not feminine: In a peculiarly female way, she declines to give her age. In truth, she's sort of ageless; she could be 35 or 45 or some other age entirely. It doesn't matter.

When Szerlip first began making book sculptures about a year ago, it was something of a lark. She'd been making box art -- the kinetic constructions incorporating images, words, figures, and, often, music boxes that fill an entire wall of her sky-blue bedroom -- and just started cutting and folding books. She purchases the volumes (some vintage, some not) and assorted props at flea markets, estate sales, and tourist shops around the city. Each piece takes from several hours to a week to assemble and sells for approximately $150 to $300. It was only when she sold her first piece that Szerlip started taking the forms seriously. "It never occurred to me that someone would want to buy them," she says.

Despite much evidence to contradict her, Szerlip doesn't consider herself an artist. Her day job -- editing, writing, creating promotional materials for direct-mail catalogs, doing some film and design work -- is what pays the rent. Other artists influenced her, but her greatest influence was probably her late father, who liked to putter in his basement workshop. "He wasn't an artist," Szerlip explains. "He was a craftsman." She says she has always made things with her hands: When she was a child, for example, her grandmother taught her to knit, and she couldn't sleep that night for excitement. (Szerlip was a professional seamstress for a while.)

Though she's casual about her art, each piece displays an editor's careful attention to detail and a designer's painstaking eye for matching materials and creating compositions. Chinese Lantern With Dragonflies is a large-scale sculpture that sits on an old Chinese stand; it combines a Chinese poster of a smiling woman from the 1920s pasted on top of a splayed book's pages, calligraphed Chinese text running along their tops and bottoms, copper dragonflies glued to the endpapers, and peacock feathers on the cover, to make a statement about culture and beauty that's irresistible. The Life of Nelson mixes a 1918 book on the British naval hero with a green horseback-riding ribbon, the seal of some unidentifiable nation, and Szerlip's own handwritten commentary about Nelson's exciting life story sewn into the pages for a sort of biographical/autobiographical treatise on bravery. Paris D'Autrefois ("Paris of the past") comments on history and travel by placing a disassembled old map on top of the glued-together pages of a book, a pink ribbon with French text on it holding the whole thing together. Wild Life the World Over has an alligator crawling over its cut pages and a tree growing out of the top; The Ideal Sex Life features a photograph of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. One book is an homage to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong; another is in honor of Amelia Earhart. Marguerite Duras' The Lover joins with a San Francisco Social Register from 1956 and a series of tiny white pearls. Phases of the Moon includes glow-in-the-dark models and a music box that plays "Clare de Lune." It would all be precious if it weren't so damned smart.

In fact, Szerlip thinks of these pieces as a sort of "vacation" from her more intellectual pursuits. If most of the time this two-time National Endowment for the Arts writing fellow is copy editing novels and nonfiction titles, writing articles on Isabel Allende for Poets & Writers and daily editorials for the Examiner, or coming up with clever ways to sell products for huge national companies, the rest of the time she moves away from "the specificity of language" to focus on manipulating color and shape. As she puts it -- in a way that would chill any librarian's heart -- "I'm just screwing around."

About The Author

Karen Zuercher

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