What draws us into a book? Is it the sensation of opening the first few pages, getting a sense and touch -- and perhaps even a smell -- of it? Is it the thrill of getting to the very end? Or is it the way we experience it as a whole, cover to cover?
The students, librarians and curators at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles were transfixed on this notion of fully experiencing the structure of books. The school's Millard Sheets Library, named after the well-known American painter, certainly had enough to fill the shelves. However, it was not a library they were going after. The idea for an exhibit started from a budding interest, a love for alternative book structures and letterpress, and a special collection.
Located at the spacious Ben Maltz gallery on the Otis College campus, tucked away behind the Los Angeles Airport, "Binding Desire: Unfolding Artists Books" is a group exhibition featuring the works of Otis students, faculty, and known figures in the art world. The Otis Artists' Book Collection at the Millard Sheets Library is among the largest in Southern California, with approximately 2,300 works representing about every genre and topic with materials dating from the 1960s to the present. Special collections librarian Cathy Chambers quickly realized while browsing through archives that there was such a great amount of handmade artists' books, tucked away within the locked-up shelves, that few would ever get to see or experience.
"We try to get material that supports students using the collection, particularly students in the letterpress printing class, who could find this collection very useful and valuable in their study of book art," says Chambers. "We like the idea of accessibility for the artists, enlarging students' vision of the conceptualized nature of art."
Joan Hugo, one of the early librarians at Otis College -- and a specialist in artists' books -- began collecting materials such as handmade letters and so-called "book art," recognizing these non-traditional structures with pages folding out on themselves, spilling onto tables, jumping out with pop-up installations. Throughout her career, she collected the works of many published contemporary conceptualized artists and stored them within the special collections division of the Otis library.
Kathleen Walkup, the Director of Book Arts at Mills College, wrote the essay about the importance of this collection happening here in Los Angeles. She noticed the artists' books included luminaries such as Marshall McLuhan and Edward Ruscha, came from different post-modern eras in American history, and wanted to utilize their accessibility made possible by Hugo's impressive collection. "It seems to me that [Hugo] focused quite heavily on thinking about what Otis was as an institution, what the students at Otis would, could, and maybe should be looking at to enlarge their vision about what art-making is all about and what the conceptual nature of art might be," she says. She along with other Otis librarians and the gallery's curatorial team collaborated in collecting more groundbreaking books for the exhibit -- going with this theme of conceptualized art with a message; choosing pieces that "break out of their binds" in the non-traditional sense.
The artists' books that are found at the Binding Desire exhibit are not your average two-week library rentals. Anything but leather-bound; the books practically leap out at you from inside their display cases. A personal favorite of mine is Julie Chen's "Life Time" (1996), a letterpress-printed "tunnel book" that resembles a fold-out accordion, recounting the different stages of life in a literal "tunnel vision." The poem is both simple and poignant.
Marshall McLuhan's "Distant Early Warning" (1969) takes on the least traditional form of an artist's book: a deck of playing cards, designed to stimulate "out of the box" thinking and problem solving during the Cold War era. It was an open statement against the war and the air raid tactics being used by soldiers at the time -- almost a form of satirical propaganda -- but like much of McLuhan's works, the message is in the viewer's interpretation. It is hard to pinpoint exactly.
"I usually avoid trying to define artists books, because there are so many ramifications to definition," Otis librarian Cathy Chambers points out, and rightly so. Definition is so limiting. What is an artists' book, anyway? Where are the words, the storyline? Why all the folding and cutting and visuals?
It is an intense process, often involving a special type of printing called letterpress, where moveable type is locked into a large printing press, inked, and pressed against paper to create an impression. Handmade relief printing may seem pretty old school, but the results are incredible: Books that have been folded into accordion-like structures, cut and turned inside-out, transformed into boxed sets, revealed through photographs or mixed media. But no matter their shape or size, the books at the exhibit all have one thing in common: they tell a story.
Says Meg Linton, the Director of Galleries and Exhibitions at OTIS, "It talks to the legacy aspect: this is also a living art form. Even though it's using sometimes very ancient techniques, it's about what's happening today and how it's growing and moving beyond. And so the possibility of what our students and future generations are going to conceive as a book is really exciting."
"Binding Desire" opened last January, and it closes by the end of this month.
Top Image: Artwork from "Binding Desire: Unfolding Artists Books."
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