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March 9 - April 21, 2005 at Cal Poly Pomona, Kellogg Gallery, Pomona

by Judith Hoffberg

Big Books I have known include the largest book in the world, a copy of the “Tripitaka,” the sacred Buddhist text that includes Buddha’s teaching, which occupies a 13-acre site on the grounds of the Kuthodaw pagoda in Mandalay, Burma. King Mindon of Burma in the 19th century decided that a special revised edition of the “Tripitaka” should be inscribed on stone in the Burmese script so that his people would have a copy lasting as long as the world did. Not only is it the largest book, it also ranks among the world’s longest. In order to read it, a person would have to spend eight hours a day for 450 days before coming to the end.

A more recent text weighing in at 133 pounds is “Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom” (published by Friendly Planet, 2003). This $15,000 edition measures 5 x 7 feet. Another book created in 1981 at the Rhode Island School of Design measures 10 x 16 feet. Its 30 pages are each handprinted, with block letters measuring 6 x 4 inches each. It consists of the Mad Tea Party section of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”.

Then there was “The Big Book” created by Alison Knowles in 1967, 8 feet high, 2 feet wide and with pages hung on circular piped scaffolding like a looseleaf binder. The artist lived in that book for one week cooking, reading, laying on grass, listening to music. This truly was an artist’s book created for the sheer enjoyment of infinite delights, including the extension of “reading” into the realm of total body experience.

The six artists in this exhibition of outsized books, curated by Jean Clad, have all consistently used the book form as an intimate, meditative, tactile vehicle for reading during their careers. Lita Albuquerque’s reputation for large installations in natural settings, and public art in which the cosmos is explored in an aesthetic and spiritual way, also includes diaristic bookworks. Her contribution to this exhibition includes a glass bookwork with layered pages that involve language which is at once symbolic, holographic and hieroglyphic. Her art practice involves being open to nature as a daily ritual. She has reflected on the honeybee and its relationship to the cosmos. By positing a language of nature (the honeycomb) in front of the oldest and most sacred (yet silent) of monuments (the Pyramid of Giza), she proposes the relationship of the honeybee to the sun, between nature on this planet, and the stellar configuration of the cosmos. With gold flecks serving as honeybees, or honey, or star dust, or space particles, the glass pages of the “Bee Book” (2001), which have silkscreened images upon them, superimpose upon themselves to create new relationships even to the spiritual. The “As Above So Below” series includes honey and water, with shadows and reflections that send the viewer out into the cosmos.

Lita Albuquerque, "Bee Book,"
2001, silkscreen on glass,
11 panels, 14 x 11" each.

Linda Ekstrom, "Bird: Flight
of Circumference," 2005, altered
Bibles/thread, 159 spherical forms.

Genie Shenk, "Book of Interior
Folds," 2005, Part 1: tar paper/
kozo/wax; Part 2: tar paper/ink.

Likewise, but in very different fashion, Linda Ekstrom strikes a chord with religious mysteries hidden within the sacred realm. She too deals with language, but emphasizing the units of languages, meaning words in relation to the body and words in relation to space and memory. In her religious practice, she finds the word anchored in the Bible. By altering Bibles in a labor-intensive deconstruction of the book, Ekstrom pursues her personal search for meaning. Gathering the lines of the Bible into large, twisted, shredded and tangled lines, tucking the parts under and pressing down, the sacred word is transformed into a sacred object. As she evolves a larger project, emphasizing placement rather than intimacy, “reading” becomes compromised in her work--and some of the other artists here as well. The blue balls of language deconstructed from the Bible also appear in a series of 159 spherical forms called “Bird: Flight of Circumference.”

Mary Ellen Long, "Winter Pressing,"
2001/202, book installation:
paper buried under winter snow.

Pia Pizzo, "The Door," 1998, mirrors/
BFK paper/Japanese and Indian rice
paper/canvas/inks of china/gold leaf.

Sue Ann Robinson, "Walking
Fools, Chapter One," 1987,
mixed media and ink on paper.
What was to have been only an ephemeral piece in which Genie Shenk wanted to study the spiral motion between concentric circles, which involves Navajo mythology, Jungian psychology and Tantric philosophy, “Spiral” was exhibited and then set aside. Eight years later, she decided to reconfigure the piece, which had been hibernating in 300 white envelopes. With more time and mastery, Shenk saw the piece anew as 300 folded signatures, not 6,000 pages, and began to bind them into 150 books. She provided structural change and stability to a work that had only been seen as a one-time project. In its new incarnation it makes you want to think a great deal about books, spirals, spirituality and so much more. The ever-growing height of the spiral is demonstrated by the “Book of Increments,” which shows how the kozo and wax on tar paper is the basis for the growth and development of “Spiral,” as does the “Book of Interior Folds,” which demonstrates her mastery of the geometry.

Ritual runs through this show, and Mary Ellen Long’s work exemplifies the tendency. By performing personal rituals in the forest habitats of Colorado, such as burying “pages” under winter snow and harvesting the altered forms in the spring, her “collected writings” of animal life pattern these book pages. In “Forest Library” nature’s process of decay is marked as the seasons pass, allowing the artist to freeze the flow of natural transitions and celebrate the spirit of place. Because she sees the scale change from the normal codex structure of a page to a larger size due to its relation to landscape, she sees the scale of trees as she works with the product of trees, namely paper. Long has struck a spiritual motif throughout her work, making the bookwork a meditative catalyst for the “reader’s” everyday habits as well. Placing strips of paper down on the earth in order to allow the insects (bark beetles) to penetrate and pattern their roadways and byways on the paper produces these higher results.

Also grasping at the spiritual, Pia Pizzo is interested in the tactile quality of material of non-books and non-readable books. Using handmade paper, she sees the page as a virgin void of mental space. With progressive cutting, she opens up the perspective to create a feeling of mysticism, cosmic unity and sacred geometry. After studying, feeling and handling the paper in a kind of meditation, she tears these beautiful sheets, defying any aggressive act. In fact, she respects the paper as her medium, since it comes from France or Japan, China or Nepal. The source location in effect imbues its paper with its own spirituality. Her room-sized book, “The Door,” captures that emotional spirituality and mysticism at its utmost, using 3 books and 4 mirrors. “Her Dream” (2004) incorporates old book covers, Nepalese handmade paper, Japanese rice paper, and gloriously painted pages.

The only bookwork here which has narrative content in abundance is “Walking Fools”, by Sue Ann Robinson. It is the product of a residency at the Dorland Art Colony in California, where she lived for a time without electricity--but with an oak grove and an old woven blanket. The “walking fools” would have used these shelters made of pages in their travels, a kind of lean-to. The chapters have grown from one, which was exhibited at the Fresno Art Center in the 1980’s, into five variations of large sculptural walls of pages or smaller bookworks. They sometimes capture the Griot tradition of tribal storytelling by using objects hanging on the pages as a catalyst for the story, capturing the wanderings of these “fools” who are truly wise men. These stories of our lives come from natural and cultural artifacts around us, according to the artist. Their proportions have biblical dimensions in human terms. Robinson is a seasoned artist who has used the book as her medium for several decades. To go from the tactile intimacy of a hand-held codex to these room-sized works of art seems to be natural to her instincts and her interest in the environment. This is the first time all five chapters have been exhibited together.

The work here collectively expands the intellectual, aesthetic and sensual boundaries of the book, the potential of what a “book” can be, namely sculpture, or even sculptural installations. But such innovation by itself would not be sufficient, it is the consistently deep commitment to the quality of the work by very experienced artists that lends this exhibition its weight.