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Publish, Don't Perish!

A selection of artist books and
artist publications from 1996

The artist book renaissance has been going on for more than 30 years, so it is not surprising to find a remarkable array of artist publications that clearly create a portable museum and an outlook on printed matter that makes it possible for any collector with a small income to fill the shelves with works of art in book form from around the world. What distinguishes the bookworks of the current mold from their predecessors of the 1960s and 1970s is the technology that goes into making them. Laser printers and color copiers, computer technology for page design and font design all make for better looking publications. But artists continue to treat social and political content in their myriad pages, as well as insert humor where humor seldom appears on the walls of galleries and museums.

The past year has not been an exception. In fact, more books by artists are being published, some even by major publishers. Chronicle Books in San Francisco has dedicated itself to including artist books on their publishing lists, and the books are stunning, exciting and innovative. Distribution, therefore, is guaranteed and it makes for a better guarantee of more people "reading" and buying artist books. But Chronicle is an exception, and most often artists publish their books either out of pocket, or they find funding from institutions who substitute exhibition catalogue funds for an artist book that serves the same purpose, or from the few but extremely busy artist presses in North America that fund artists to come to their locale, spend a month, and create a book on the press. This requires a great deal of pre-publication work, a knowledge of the printing techniques, and the ability to work long hours to make the time worthwhile and accomplish the task. Oftentimes, the artist has many printed pages, but the binding is done at home, once returned from the funding source.

One of the stunning examples is Nexus Press in Atlanta which proposed to the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, held in1996, to enter into a partnership to enable five accomplished, international artists to collaborate with the Press staff of book artists on individual book projects. The partnership led to the hunt for five artists throughout the international artist's book community, and over 400 artists' names were placed in nomination. In turn, each nominated artist was invited to submit a proposal that either reflected or embraced the Olympic Spirit, the thread that would loosely bind the five projects. Over 100 proposals from artists representing 35 nationalities were submitted. Some proposals were elaborately crafted bound folios, while others were typed pages with a description of the artist's approach. The five artists chosen, each to represent a continent, each representing an Olympic ring were: Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Ivory Coast; Shelagh Keeley, Canada; Fernando Lopes, Brazil; Shinro Ohtake, Japan; and Darya von Berner, Spain. The projects were on exhibit in Atlanta, called Artist's Books Libros Livres Livros Bukusu!: International Collaborations with Nexus Press, which documented the project during the summer of 1996.
Fernando Lopes' The Flag Book: Interaction Towards a Better World ($15.00) includes the flags of 96 nations deconstructed and distilled into a playful book structure that invites reader manipulation. The physical movement of the folded accordion pleats produces staccato-like visual bites of color, while evoking a conceptual call for universal understanding and unity. The glossy black covers, lined with text that translates the English word "interaction" into German, Russian, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese and Hebrew, open to reveal an emphatic burst of bright visual connections between countries the world over.

Fernando Lopes, "The Flag Book: Interaction Towards a Better World," edition of 5,000, Nexus Press, Atlanta, GA, 1996. 

Shelagh Keeley's desire and the importance of failure, also titled lo spirito della storia naturale, is like a sacred memory: it visually carries the reader through a waking-dream state, offering doors through which one must enter and exist. This self-referential reverie in three movements contains images of mirrors and book covers that denote transitions from exterior to interior and out again. Between those reflections Keeley renders dresses, sheaths, baskets and other expressively-shaped vessels that overlay or extend photo transfers of the natural world; she responds intuitively to the character of flowing, gauzy fabric, speckled eggs in boxes, extinct plants and arcane medical illustrations. Gathering these curious images and placing them within a book-as-vessel, Keeley examines how they separate humankind from nature, how these containers may conceal passion and emotion. The deconstructed poetry of cultural theorist Deb Esch keeps quiet company with her wistful images and allows the book to be as easily read back to front in a way that recalls Keeley's first Japanese-structured books. This is her first offset book.

Shinro Ohtake from Japan creates intense travel scrapbooks crammed with discarded cultural artifacts--scavenged tickets, snapshots, tags, currency, newspapers and other mass-produced printed matter shrugged off by popular culture. His bookworks, both one-of-a-kind and multiples, are sculptural, multi-colored, excessive layers of found images and objects that interact with his own painting and drawing before he seals them with coats of wax, stain, and varnish, plastic or fiberglass. Diversely influenced by personal experiences, surrealism, pop art and music, David Hockney, Adolf Wölffli, and a postman named Cheval, the artist unearths a jumble of the exotic and the mundane. In his Atlanta 1945+50 ($60.00), he combines Tokyo street ephemera with Atlanta's cultural encrustation, material from Atlanta's billboards and throwaway sheets from previous printings in Japan. He inserted individually applied reproductions, rare photoportraits, tintypes and snapshots of the American South, and it is all attached by a blue thread (the Pacific Ocean) to a diminutive book (Japan) that reveals this artist's appreciation of printed ephemera no matter what its content or source. An amazing bookwork sometimes requiring 150 runs on the press.

The other two books, the one from Spain and the other from the Ivory Coast have not been seen, but they too are major works of art and affordable. For more information, contact Nexus Press, 535 Means St. NW, Atlanta, GA 30318. The whole set is available for $190.00, but you can buy the single titles separately. Together these works reflect experimental uses of the offset medium and exemplify masterful interpretations of the artist book.

Nick Bantock Ganesha Figure
from "The Venetian's Wife"
 In the narrative mode, Chronicle Books published The Venetian's Wife by Nick Bantock (of Griffin & Sabine fame)($22.95), which is subtitled "A Strangely Sensual Tale of a Renaissance Explorer, a Computer and a Metamorphosis," a kind of adult fairy tale, based on historical facts and contemporary technology, an illustrated novel where the illustrations become part of the thread of the narrative. Bantock, in this book, wanted to make the pictures "more information carriers in their own right", which became a big challenge because the art had to fall not only on the correct page but exactly in the right place on the page. And he did it!

This too is an epistolary novel, whereby a wealthy Renaissance merchant and indefatigable traveler Niccolo Dei Conti, who having died in 1469, contacted Sara Wolfe, who finds herself inexplicably attracted to a drawing of the Hindu god, Shiva, in the museum where she works. The message from Dei Conti comes to her via e-mail asking her to find a few remaining pieces of a 15th-century adventurer's renowned collection of Indian sculpture. This is a job offer, and although she is somewhat disbelieving, she takes it. And then she begins a whirlwind of travel in search of the artwork that Dei Conti desires to have for his collection. Bantock is a wonderful storyteller creating a contemporary illuminated manuscript.

Another book published by Chronicle is Paris Out of Hand: A Wayward Guide by Karen Elizabeth Gordon ($19.95), which looks like a real Michelin guide to Paris, but actually remains a tour of an imagined Paris, in fact a great tour de force. Some of the magic is hinted at when the collaboration includes Nick Bantock again, as well as Barbara Hodgson. You really have never been to this Paris, but what a Paris it is! The rating guide for the hotels is so wonderfully conceived: the icons represented are amazing and each hotel, seemingly genuine, is a fantasy beyond your wildest dreams. Just imagine visiting the Cafe Conjugal, where you and your partner end up in a spat; you can make up at the luscious and fantastic Museum of Lips and Books, or go to the Church of the Marionettes, one of the most sacred places in all of Europe. The red cloth binding, the rounded corners, and the upside-down Eiffel Tower on the cover give this book away. Keep it for a while, and you can have a fantastic trip from your living room!

Karen Elizabeth Gordon, "Paris Out
of Hand: A Wayward Guide" (front
cover), Chronicle Press, 1996.

Journeys and travel books are a perennial theme in bookworks. Several others were Some Cities by Victor Burgin (University of California Press, $19.95) which is a collection of thoughts, places and photographs just like any "traveler," but from his perspective, his words and photographs address the pervasive condition of the city, while the form is a travel book where each city is created as a "destination," a familiar place. The trip includes Northern England, London, Berlin and Warsaw; Singapore, Woomera and Tokyo; New York and San Francisco; and the islands of Stromboli and Tobago. Without Intent by Mary Ellen Carroll ($10.00) is a documentation of Manhattan, using a camera mounted on the photographer's back. The focus is set to infinity and the walk is from Broadway form the Harlem River to Battery Park. The photos, printed to the edge, give the reader a near-actual walk through New York City --almost better than a videotape, since the interactivity comes with the hand. Ordinary Events by Carl Sesto ($35.00) incorporates all the new technology of computers presenting a visual diary in full and glorious color, a hardback book of memories as a total work of art, with layers of images.

Mail Art figures prominently in artist books, since it is an interesting way of celebrating the snail mail of a network that circles the globe. Mark Pawson of London has cataloged All My Rubberstamps ($40.00), which is a multiple of an originally small output handstamped book. Over 250 stamps are in 12 categories, such as those in possession of the artist as a child, those bought new, bought secondhand, found in the street, stolen, borrowed, custom-made commercially, etc. There are also empty pages allowing for future updates, with the inclusion of a voucher, telling the buyer that the book could be returned once, at any time in the future, and Pawson would add any new stamps, and return it. A labor of love, save for a few laser prints. Another book from England is Envelope Interior Pin-up Calendar by Erica van Horn ($25.00) which also elevates the common envelope to a work of art. In fact, if you look at the interior of some business envelopes (especially airmail ones, foreign ones), there is a graphic design which is repeated, oftentimes the logo of the firm, sometimes just a graphic icon. This spiral-bound calendar for 1997 has an envelope interior for each month--each one different. Altered Post Cards by Gary Goldstein (Jerusalem, $20.00) is a portfolio of altered images in postcard form with "happy face" in black and white superimposed on colored tourist images of the Mount of Olives, or the Western Wall or the Menorah, but with the touch of the artist's drawings or doodles. It is the artist's personal world superimposed upon the "tourist" world of Jerusalem as the city closest to Divinity. They become "My Own Personal Jerusalem."

Rachel Rosenthal, "Tatti Wattles: A
Love Story", (front cover), Smart Art
Press, Santa Monica, 1996.
Smart Art Press, founded by Tom Patchett of Track 16 (at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica), has been a conduit for a long list of exhibition catalogs and an occasional artist book. Among the best of 1996 were Blinky the Friendly Hen by Jeffrey Vallance ($15.00), a reprint of a bestseller in the 1970s which was only printed in an edition of 500, but now is available to all those fans of Jeffrey Vallance throughout the world. One sees here a more handsome version of Blinky dedicated to the billions of hens sacrificed each year for our consumption. Hilarious and poignant at the same time, Blinky has been a cult "figure" since 1979. Another book that will have resonance this year is Rachel Rosenthal's poignant Tatti Wattles, a Love Story ($20.00), which documents the life and affection for Tatti which Rosenthal holds to this day. Famed performance artist, Rosenthal, loves animals and Tatti was a fixture in her home and wherever she went. The stories, the "tales" and the love for this pet rat, who actually was part of the family, will move children and adults alike. The drawings are a surprise to those who do not know that Rosenthal is indeed a "compleat" artist.

More humorous books include Mortal Remains by Ricardo Bloch and Don Celender (O. K. Harris Gallery, New York, $16.00), a book based on a questionnaire in which 400 creative artists were asked where they wanted their body or remains to spend the rest of eternity? And what kind of marker would be desirable? Or is there anything you'd like to wear or take with you? From Frank Gehry to Dorothea Rockburne, from Buzz Spector to Adam Fuss, from Betty Hahn to Alison Knowles, there are drawings, poems (Allen Ginsberg) and a long letter from John Coplans to his son. So much to laugh at, so much to ponder.

The longest title of any bookwork published recently is Lots of Potential Tea Parlor but Lack of Focus Shooting Gallery Field Guide & Instruction Manual: Key to the Interpretations by J. Kathleen White ($10.00), which was produced for a traveling installation art show that toured Montana in summer 1995. The installation had walls with 64 images inside 8 targets. Knock two over to get a combination number (one of the 64 images--readymade tea leaf readings). Then if you like, you could come back in the tent to consult the book, which had a story for the number as well. The Caravan Project was a labor of love, with 14 artists and nine mobile art units involved. The book's potential seems endless. You either become a psycho case, or you are cured forever. The subliminal humor and meaningful pathos attributed to several of the fortunes might lead a person to suicide--but such fun in getting there! Each page is accompanied by a hilarious drawing which is framed by a circle.

Another local press is the SCI-ARC Public Access Press in Los Angeles, which is the principal sponsor of The Book of Lies by Eugenia Butler, an international project with the participation of many noted artists. This is a luxury publication, one which has been seen in several exhibitions in both commercial and non-profit galleries recently, as well as having its own website. But the SCI-ARC Public Access Press does small publications as well. Sam Blower's The Mini-Manual of The Anarchic Urbanist ($4.00) is an illustrated guide outlining the doctrine of the anarchic urbanist. With helpful hints on how you can get started and warnings what to avoid, this 8-page manual illustrated by acts of guerrilla architecture and cultural resistance comes in a small manila envelope is as inexpensive as most books get, but it makes its point.

But one of my favorite books is 101 Artists' Quotes ($12.00), all fictitious quotes created by Justin Blaustein and Asmundur Asmundsson. This is a beautifully printed book on newsprint which creates fictitious quotes by real people from Keith Haring to Richard Tuttle, as well as modernist masters on art, life, fame and fortune. It's a kind of wishful thinking, the kind of quotes these artists might have said if only they would have thought of it first. You get such pithy quotes as Ed Ruscha's statement "I left my heart in L.A. but an art critic found it in my painting." Or Carl Andre's quote: "All my works are dedicated to Venus." Or homeboy Mike Kelley's "When it comes to art, I feel guilty."

So don't feel guilty. Go to Artworks/Bookarts here in Santa Monica, or you can order most of these books from Printed Matter, in New York City, or contact the above mentioned publishers direct. There are several thousand available for your delectation. It's international, an investment that does not exhaust the budget. It's portable, requires little or no insurance, and even can be given as gifts and replaced. What more can you ask of an art collection--an artist book collection at that!