New art exhibits show disappearance of paper books in electronic age
Published: Tuesday, November 15, 2011, 7:20 AM Updated: Tuesday, November 15, 2011, 3:13 PM
Two new exhibitions, one at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton and another at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, are devoted to books — but they’re not literary at all.
Instead, both shows try to take the measure of books as symbols of knowledge and its loss in an electronic information age, and then try to repurpose the book as a particularly potent visual metaphor.
Books, of course, have been collectibles for a long time — Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the two leading fine art auction houses, began as rare-book dealers in the 18th century, after all. And, given the way popular forms of mass communication have become fine arts once technology supersedes them (think lithography and silkscreens), it seems utterly natural that artists would find the physical presence of the paper book an important subject just as it seems to fade away.
In the Visual Arts Center’s “Bibliomania,” curated by Mary Birmingham, all the paradoxes of the book are explored by 10 artists, ranging from beautiful and vaguely snarky watercolors by Thomas Broadbent (his “The Weight of Words,” 2010, shows a pile of heavy books teetering over a tiny blue songbird, like Godzilla over Bambi) to Nina Katchadourian’s “Sorted Books” project, which involves the artist lining up book titles to form a sentence. Like, for example, “Primitive Art,” which uses the spines of four books to spell out “Primitive Art/Just Imagine/Picasso/Raised by Wolves.” Katchadourian has realized her program in private homes, libraries, altogether at more than 130 sites, many quite outside the normal run of visual arts venues.
What is immediately apparent in the Summit show is the easy analogy that can be made between books and other forms of found-object assemblage — paper books are sculptural objects, almost like bricks, but they show the individual marks of wear and tear as clearly as any used tool. Ryan Brown and Richard Baker both reproduce battered book covers as documents of use and hard-won knowledge; on the other hand, Brandon Lattu reproduces book covers digitally on hard plastic shells that look just like brand new books when packed tightly together, but are in fact entirely empty.
“Din of Murmurs” at the Grounds is similar but very, very different. Grounds is showing a small selection of the “GlassBook Project,” begun by Nick Kline, an assistant professor in the Arts, Culture, and Media Department at Rutgers-Newark, and Helga Luest, president of Witness Justice, an advocacy group for trauma victims. They met again four years ago at their high school reunion in Sparta, and Kline, who had just visited the GlassWorks studio in Newark, thought his students could make socially engaged art based on the stories of survivors of violence.
Kline thought “books” made of fused glass were the perfect medium for these stories. Small enough to fill your hand but big enough to contain a world, books are a bit like people (in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” people willingly devote themselves to memorizing a single book and then take its title as their name). Kline brings other fine artists in as advisers as well as trauma survivors and community groups, and his award-winning project has produced work about everything from domestic abuse to world peace, using every glass technique from kiln-firing to sand-blasting to etching words on wine bottles.
“This is not art as therapy,” Kline says, “but as metaphor: People, like glass, can break. … The great thing about the books is the way they create an immediate sense of empathy. Helga takes a few of them to meetings with politicians or caregivers and they see the point right away; it’s become an advocacy tool for survivors of violence.”
So the GlassBook Project has made an accordion book more than 100 feet long for the Dali Lama’s “Peace Summit,” and an exhibition devoted to special needs kids that was viewed by U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-10th Dist), pressing for their support. His class is currently working on a letter in glass to an Ohio judge who’s deciding a controversial child abuse case.
The book is indeed a great metaphor — for themselves as much as for everything else. One piece at the Grounds, a fused glass book submerged in a glass fishbowl, tells you all you need to know: Books are underwater.
Where: Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, 68 Elm St., Summit
When: Through Dec. 11. Open Mondays to Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Fridays, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
How much: Free. For more information, call (908) 273-9121 or visit artcenternj.org.
Nick Kline: Din of Murmurs
Where: Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton
When: Through Dec. 11. Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
How much: Adults, $12; seniors, $10; children, $8 (children younger than 5 admitted free). For more information, call (609) 586-0616 or visit groundsforsculpture.org.
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