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The Great Divide 

Why do books and other art forms remain so separate?

Tuesday, Dec 24 2002
The pile of white cotton gloves -- one-size-fits-all -- is the first sign that this is a different kind of art show. Visitors to Gallery Lux, on Seventh Street at Bryant, are expected to put them on before pawing any of the pieces without a "Please do not touch" sign. At the opening of "[re]Readings: Artists' Books Now" early this month, attendees politely flipped through the items in the "reading room," where most of the titles aren't the kind you'd sit down and peruse. (A hilarious but word-free flip book by Julia Featheringill called Laundry -- a woman literally watching clothes turn in a dryer -- is one example.) In the main gallery, guests sipped white wine and tilted their heads quizzically at about two dozen books -- attached to the wall, encased in Plexiglas, held open with plastic bands. Such exhibitions are hybrid beasts.

Some people think that if you can't read it, it ain't a book. Others think that if you can't hang it on a wall or put it on a pedestal, it ain't fine art. Artists' books -- objects created by artists and designed to communicate an idea by using the sequence, structure, and flow of books -- are guaranteed to piss both groups off. No one doubts that literature is art; the jury's still out on whether the physical vessel for that literature is, also.

Three current shows make the case for artists' books as fine art in their own right. The Gallery Lux show runs through Feb. 14; a concurrent, connected display at the San Francisco Center for the Book, called "Revealing the Mysteries: The Development of the Artist's Book in the Bay Area," is up through Jan. 15. And in the Skylight Gallery of the Main Library is the "Hand Bookbinders of California 30th Anniversary Exhibition," on view through Jan. 3. (An exhibit at the Palace of the Legion of Honor through Feb. 23, "Max Ernst: Surrealism in Artists' Books," makes the historical case.)

Artists' books have an unfortunately small audience. People who love to read may imagine that they'll be frustrated looking at books they can't flip through. But as these exhibits prove, looking at artists' books helps us understand how many different ways there are to tell a story. As Jason Francisco, whose piece Continent is in the Lux show, says, "A physical book is a controlled release of meaning" -- and to get that meaning you have to read a book on several levels. These shows are the best consolidation of those levels you'll find.

The three small shows, which can easily be viewed together in a single afternoon, present the whole range of what an artists' book can be. The library exhibition is probably the most traditional (and traditionally beautiful), because the Hand Bookbinders of California are arguably more interested in the physical object than in the message it sends. Pretty much all of the exhibit's pieces look like books, with covers and spines and pages that turn (though again, you can't touch them -- too bad). The Center's display is the most experimental, with some items that are hard to identify as books: I'm thinking particularly of Natalie Dean's Box Book, a silk-screen on board and glass that has no words -- just images that reflect on and through the glass -- but which certainly tells a story. The Lux's selections fall somewhere between tradition and experiment.

Francisco, who lived in the Bay Area until 2000 (he's now in Philadelphia), is an eloquent spokesman for the power of artists' books. Though a documentary photographer by trade, he says he "was making books before [he] physically learned to make books." By that, he means that he always conceived of his sequential photos as "larger releases of meaning," rather than single images to hang on a wall. Continent is a one-of-a-kind hand-bound collection of his own black-and-white photographs combined with found pictures (from antique stores, flea markets, and "weird branches" of his family).

The album maps out a journey across America -- both "physical" and "psychic, emotional," as Francisco explains it. It's one of the few books in Lux's main gallery that can be handled, and it must be handled. Turning each page is like driving into a new state on a cross-country trip: Here's something you recognize, and here's something you don't, and together they give you an instantaneous glimpse of place and personality. The book's climax is a post-9/11 image of the New York skyline, with the white streak of a helicopter in the sky and its searchlight reflected on the water.

Part of the reason Francisco works in book form is that "it takes the photo off the wall" and "makes the tactile experience part of the experience of a picture." We're so used to being far away from photographs -- some museum guide always shoos us if we lean in too close -- but here we can place our noses right up against the picture. There's something bold about an artist who lets you touch his work; as Francisco says, "It takes a certain faith in the public to ask them to look at a book," but then, "I don't make books as sculptures."

So many of the titles in the Lux show (as well as the library and Center shows) are sculptures, of a sort. They're gorgeous objects, ones you can imagine resting on a display table at home. But they're more than that, and worthy of wider attention. They tell us tales of America, or doing laundry, or whatever it is that the artist desperately needed us to know. They're inspirational, both as art and as books. So here's a suggestion: It's rainy, and it's the end of the year -- go look at some artistic books, and forget about categories for a while. Then resolve to make some art of your own, in whatever form.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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