Visual

Unhinged

The art of books

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

At first blush, the giant bust of composer and pianist Franz Liszt currently on display at Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building as part of the “Unhinged: Book Art on the Cutting Edge” exhibit appears to be made out of marble.

However, a quick peek behind the oversized noggin tells a different tale. Instead of working with stone, New York City-based artist Long-Bin Chen carved the famous face out of the pages of discarded books—the titles of which can be found where Liszt’s big ol’ brain would be.

“With paper being discarded or recycled, books are no longer the only medium to contain and pass on knowledge,” Chen writes in his artist’s statement. “Due to my special fondness for books, I have gathered and utilized them in my work, transferring the medium back to its original state as wood with an appearance of stone or marble.”

Chen’s clever creation showcases one of the many ways the 60-plus artists included in the exhibit used books—or the concept of books—as ways to express their visions.

For example, Harriet Bart’s “The Words” sees the book as a scientific experiment, using glass flasks and other laboratory ingredients to get the point across. Doug Beube’s “Border Crossing in the War Room” features the pages of an atlas that have been cut into equal halves and then stitched with aluminum zippers, allowing the work to be seen in a variety of ways. “Current Culture Medium,” an amazingly intricate carved sculpture by Brian Dettmer, is a single-book work derived from a copy of the 23rd edition of Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, circa 1957.

On a meditative note, Sun Young Kang’s “To Find the One Way” is comprised of 1,080 small pieces of paper that have been enhanced by using incense to imprint each piece with different renderings of the Chinese character “Tao.” The scope of this time-consuming project is made all the more poignant when the artist reveals she devoted it to her dead father.

And the list goes on; there are pop-up books, paper cuttings with intricacies that have to be seen to be believed, books that explore how people think about time and spirituality, a quilt made by recycling self-help books, jewelry conjured from reclaimed and recycled text, topographies created from Artforum magazines, and a life-sized dress derived by the detritus of romance novels.

“They’re visually compelling, but there are also stories behind each and every one of them,” curator Barbara Matilsky pointed out on a recent Thursday as we walked through the exhibit. “I wanted to show a large variety of what book art is. There are so many different approaches—some artists are making books, and some are deconstructing them.”

Matilsky says that in addition to showcasing artists who use the concept of books as inspiration, she’s also hoping those who view the exhibit will come away with a deeper interest in the written word.

“Maybe it will revive people’s interest in both books and reading,” she says, pointing out that since many people have told her it’s been one of their favorite Whatcom Museum exhibits, she has hope that this appreciation will extend beyond the gallery and into their lives.

“People stay a long time, too,” she says. “There’s a lot to read and to see. People know what books are, and here they can see how they’ve been transformed.”

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