A Book by Any Other Name

When I was growing up, books were objects I borrowed from the library and delighted in reading. These days, having visited various "book arts" exhibits, I've realized that books have also become art. I'm not referring to illuminated manuscripts nor to the stories or poetry printed on pages. Rather, I'm talking about artists' interpretations of "book." The creative results might incorporate book pages, a scooped-out book, or a book-shaped sculpture. In a time of enormous freedom in art making, the possible permutations are endless.

My latest viewing of book arts, the 9th Annual Altered Book Exhibit at Marin MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Novato, California, is a perfect example of this provocative diversity. Take, for instance, "Tree in Tree," in which Robert H. Hersey pushes the concept of book by quartering a section of tree to create "pages" over which he spread a photograph of a tree. It's one of 150 original book art objects that artists donated for the museum's fundraiser which, along with a challenge grant, led to more than $50,000.

  "Tree in Tree," by Robert H. Hersey. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Tree in Tree," by Robert H. Hersey. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Then there's the following construction of a tree composed from Collected Works of A. Lord Tennyson by Nance Miller.

  "A. Lord Tennyson," by Nance Miller. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"A. Lord Tennyson," by Nance Miller. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  Detail of "A. Lord Tennyson," by Nance Miller. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Detail of "A. Lord Tennyson," by Nance Miller. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Rayne Madison also used books (The Magic Garment and Webster's New World Dictionary) to create a particular shape, but of a woman instead of a tree, while Joanna Kidd carved a portrait into a phone book.

  "The Magic Garment," by Rayne Madison. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"The Magic Garment," by Rayne Madison. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Contacts I," by Joanna Kidd. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Contacts I," by Joanna Kidd. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  Detail of "Contacts I," by Joanna Kidd. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.   

Detail of "Contacts I," by Joanna Kidd. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.
 

Some of the artists employ the book format to explore political, social, cultural, legal, and environmental concerns. John Clarke Ridpath's History of the World, vol. VIII, was the inspiration for Donna Wallace's "The History of the World Without Women." The 1887 publication is liberally illustrated with pictures of hundreds of men but only six women. It reminds me of the art history book that I was assigned as a university student--there were no women artists in it.

  "The History of the World Without Women," by Donna Wallace. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"The History of the World Without Women," by Donna Wallace. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Susan Larson remembers the aftermath of devastating fires, such as the October 2017 conflagration in Sonoma County, California. She created a personal requiem by gathering ashes and remains from Coffey Park in Santa Rosa and combining them with To Build a Fire, which was written by Jack London (1902) at his Glen Ellen home before being lost to fire in August 1913.

  "Phoenix Rising from the Ashes," by Susan Larson. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Phoenix Rising from the Ashes," by Susan Larson. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Barry Chukerman makes a different statement with his piece "ENOUGH! (The Right to 'Bare' Arms)":  "Teenagers cannot buy cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets, or pornography, but are free to buy weapons because we have a constitutional right to 'bare' arms." He replaces "bear" arms with "bare" arms as a play on words.

  "ENOUGH! (The Right to 'Bare' Arms)," by Barry Chukerman. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"ENOUGH! (The Right to 'Bare' Arms)," by Barry Chukerman. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Hallie Gardo focuses on coastal issues in "Once by the Pacific," a paper collage based on a poem by Robert Frost of almost a century ago that presages the environmental dangers and destruction we face today should certain interests hold sway over the Pacific coast.

  "Once by the Pacific," by Hallie Gordo. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Once by the Pacific," by Hallie Gordo. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  Detail of   "Once by the Pacific," by Hallie Gordo. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Detail of "Once by the Pacific," by Hallie Gordo. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Sandi Miot made her piece from disconnected inside and outside spines of discarded books to call attention to the disintegration of books in our culture, as evidenced by the disappearance of community bookstores and libraries.

  "Disintegration," by Sandi Miot. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Disintegration," by Sandi Miot. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Other works in the exhibit have a whimsical air about them, such as Heidi Joseph's "Bookish," a wearable hat created from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and "Eat Your Veggies," by Barbara Cellers and Phyllis Glassman, who were inspired by the recipes and line drawn illustrations in Silver Palate Cookbook.

  "Bookish," by Heidi Joseph. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Bookish," by Heidi Joseph. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Eat Your Veggies," by Barbara Cellers and Phyllis Glassman. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Eat Your Veggies," by Barbara Cellers and Phyllis Glassman. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Novella, Beauty Queen," by Patricia Dahl. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Novella, Beauty Queen," by Patricia Dahl. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Talkin'," by Dunja Kacic-Alesic. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Talkin'," by Dunja Kacic-Alesic. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Sherlock," by Kristen Sargent. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Sherlock," by Kristen Sargent. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

 "Appreciating Birds," by Sylvia Kacic.

"Appreciating Birds," by Sylvia Kacic.

  "Out of Africa," by Carol Allen. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Out of Africa," by Carol Allen. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Metamorphosis," by Robert Urban. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Metamorphosis," by Robert Urban. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Because the exhibit is spread across the entrance hall and 3 other areas, I can't include everything, but I hope these images make you reconsider books from another perspective. Aside from polemics usually printed on paper, how can book art be a means of communicating particular messages and raising awareness of important topics that need to be discussed? Or a way to bring a smile to our face or simply please us with its beauty? Of course, this again raises the perennial question: What is art, and what is it for?

  "Rotations," by Kerith Lisi. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Rotations," by Kerith Lisi. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "The Perfection of Wisdom," by Colleen Cavin. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"The Perfection of Wisdom," by Colleen Cavin. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Questions and Comments:
Do you work with books in your artistic practice? If so, how? And what, if anything, are you intending to communicate?
Of the images here, which hold(s) the greatest appeal for you and why? Is it the artistry or the message?