Dressing the Text

The Fine Press Artists' Book A national, juried competition and exhibition sponsored by the Printers' Chappel of Santa Cruz and The Are Museum of Santa Cruz County April 15—May, 31, 1995

The fine press artists’ book is a discrete form, particular and coherent. It is a kinetic, architectural construction that exists as sequential narrative fields suspended through time and space. It is characterized by a devotion to text, and to the physical articulation of that text. It is not an illustrated book per se. Its visual elements negotiate a correspondence with its text to reflect a coincident form of narrative. The fine press artists’ book is a mosaic, but rather than a pile of fractured bits, it is the thoughtful amalgam of text, image, paper, binding structure, typography, and meaningful content. The goal is an integrated, harmonious whole. This whole may be eccentric, the harmony dissonant, but integration is paramount.

Whether by virtue of the text and the quality of materials, the illustrations, or the design and overall craftsmanship, certain volumes have consistently transcended the particular bias of the day to stand as works of art. Considered reductively, books are tools, containers for holding information. Yet from their first appearance books have attracted those who have articulated masterpieces out of the form.

The past twenty years have witnessed an exciting period of experimentation as both the structure and the traditional uses of books have been scrutinized and re-evaluated. Artists outside the book world have appropriated the form with startling results. Conceptual book-objects have shattered conventions through exaggeration, distortion, elimination or substitution of the book’s various aspects, and have opened the entire nature of the book up to new and exciting investigations. Dressing The Text: The Fine Press Artists’ Book represents the fine printers’ response to both the technical and philosophical challenges generated by this exploration.

Books are perhaps the most intimate objects made by human beings; they are meant to be caressed, and turning each page is a kind of seduction. If printing a book dresses a text, then reading a book undresses that text to reveal its essence. A defining characteristic of the book is that its basic structure is one of containment—a binding, a box, or some other system is necessary to keep its parts from dispersing. This creates a aura of mystery around every unopened book, and a sensation of intimacy whenever a book is opened.

In many ways this exhibition presents only a shadow of the work displayed. Held stationary behind glass, the books are static, and it should be kept in mind that these objects exist as kinetic creations which rely on sequence, accretion, repetition, juxtaposition, timing, pace and fluidity to achieve their full potential. Ideally the books in this exhibition would be spread out invitingly on tables or divans where each page could be touched and examined at leisure.

Many of these pieces are extravagantly tactile, and more than one book includes an audio component integrated into its binding. The pages of another have been carefully stained. When these pages are turned a subtle aroma reaches us; they have been stained with coffee. Several volumes have multiple, inter-related texts, while others rely primarily on visual narratives. It is this ability to engage the reader on several sensory and intellectual levels simultaneously that makes these books so profoundly dynamic.

The book considered as artifact, as significant, discreet object is exemplified most eloquently in one-of-a-kind books, but the fine printer comes from a tradition of multiples. Whatever handwork was required to produce the books in this exhibition, it was repeated at least ten times—the minimum edition size required for accepted works. There is something liberating about edition work no matter how small the edition may be. Multiples insure a greater reach for a book, and multiplicity frees the work from a certain preciousness; if a book is destroyed or worn out with use, there are others.

Several books presented here are wholly the creation of a single artist, but fine press artists’ books are generally the product of many hands. Most are collaborative works, and as such reflect a preoccupation with process. An emphasis on production—exposed binding structures, exaggerated impression—transmit not only the information in the book, but information about how the book was made. The passion of the artists is passed on to the reader who apprehends these books.

“In the beginning was the word.” Western culture emanates from this premise, and every book is infused with this philosophical conceit. These words initiate a tale of incarnation, and the written word is speech incarnate. The archetype of the book is subsumed by the archetype of the word; in a book words are made flesh. The printed page allows utterance to become corporeal, and grants it a physical milieu. Every book dresses a text, dignifies and propels it into the world.

Twenty years ago William Everson gave a talk published later as “The Poem As Icon—Reflections on Printing as a Fine Art.” In this lecture he defined the book as “the vehicle of consciousness.” The fine press artists’ book is the consummate flowering of that articulation, combining meaningful text and personal vision with an attention to craft, tradition, and the sculptural possibilities inherent in the form. Everson went on to say “there will always be the challenge to elevate the text from simply utilitarian into a transcendent mode in its own right, to elevate it from a trade or a craft to a fine art.” Dressing The Text: The Fine Press Artists’ Book is dedicated to the memory of William Everson. The works exhibited here richly demonstrate a fulfillment of the prophesy of our mentor and friend. Gary Young GREENHOUSE REVIEW PRESS

 
 
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