Los Angeles

“California Bookworks: The Last Five Years”

Otis Art Institute Of Parsons School Of Design

There were over 230 artists’ books in “California Bookworks: The Last Five Years,” curated by critic and former Otis librarian Joan Hugo. In general, the books were of four types: fine-press publications, folios of prints, sculptures that abstract and extend the book structure, and handmade artifacts that cling to a craft esthetic. In this latter category, the rhetoric of materials was deafening. Fabricated from lace, scroll paper, tree bark, steel, and even other books, many of these book works were exemplars of what Frances Butler, who contributed to the catalogue, calls “craft literacy.” Supposedly, the kinesthetic reading experiences bound up in these books are not subject to commodification by the art market. Nonsense. An obsessively crafted book is an especially precious commodity. It is subject to either private ownership or institutionalization, alternate terms for the art market. None would argue against the conservation of artists’ books of all kinds, but to exaggerate the social impact of certain shy, manual features of reading is counterproductive. In the information age, “craft literacy” is a hollow art-political slogan that recalls the privileged medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites, not the rough-hewn street vernacular of, say, the Russian Constructivists. Besides, a craft esthetic too easily settles into fetish; for this show, little white gloves were provided for book-handling. It felt like a petting zoo.

In simple fact, many of these books are footnotes in an artist’s oeuvre; they codify transitional concerns, make tangential, often tentative explorations, and function as outlines for future works. As such, they are engaging. Marina La Palma’s These Women, 1982, a screenplay on tracing paper, points ahead to the theater even as it drafts out visually transparent ideas. Other books, more situations than objects, envelop the reader like a miniature theater. A tabletop assemblage of props, Joyce Wexler-Ballard’s Everyday Witch Tales, 1983, includes a stainless steel vanity mirror, a book made of discarded fingernails, and a cassette recording of women’s voices reciting tales of boas in the toilet, poodles in the microwave, and an old lady in a parked car “who was really a man with an axe in her package.” The tales are clichés, but this is gossip with an Alfred Hitchcock affectation.

Of the print folios, which were among the most expensive endeavors in the show, Rachel Rosenthal’s Soldier of Fortune, 1981, Henry Reese’s and Kirk Robertson’s West Nevada Waltz, 1981, and The Plain of Smokes, 1981, a poem and serigraph collaboration about Los Angeles by Harvey Mudd and Ken Price (Mudd describes it as “a wide-screen epic starring a city”), stood out. Hunter Reynolds’ Narrenschiff (Ship of fools, 1983), a serial wall piece with ceramic relief faces on heavy panels, and Bruce Fier’s The Day the Whole Earth Screamed, 1983, a charred Rand McNally atlas wrapped in a bow tie made from American and Soviet flags, are pertinent examples of sculptures that refer to the book form.

Numerous fine-press publications were also in the show, of which Eye, a collaborative mail-art periodical based in Santa Barbara (long a center of alternative fine-press activity), is an exceptional example. With its revolving core of editors (mostly Jeff Greenwald) and contributors, Eye dazzles the reader with visual virtuosity, and is rarely slick. Its coherence stems from each simply bound issue (there were seven in the show) having its own theme—the “Post-Nuclear Futures” issue, for example. Despite its limited readership (about 150 copies per issue), Eye is a compendium of ideas about alternative literature, of which the most resonant is that a readership is also a community, no matter its size.

During the first third of this century, innovations in book form had their parallel in the structure of social reality; radical typographical techniques, ROSTA posters, and agitprop boxcars fanned out among the masses with the dynamism of revolution itself. But for all its avant-garde rhetoric, the artist’s book of 1984 submits quietly to the display conventions of 19th-century salon painting. Only by defining new readerships will book-artists sidestep those conventions. Toward this end, curator Hugo listed the name and address of each California bookworker. Even so, book rhetoric here is generally hermetic where it might be innovative, or perhaps even propagandistic if that’s what it takes. At this rate, the artist’s book of the future will end up under glass in large halls, where even petting will be forbidden. Will the stares of the curious then constitute a new kind of reading?

Jeff Kelley