How Artists Break Conventional Binds
By Ali Russo
“Works like those you will see here take many different forms, but have one common feature: they reveal themselves slowly, and therefore require close reading.” That’s how Ruth R. Rogers, guest curator for the “Reading With The Senses” exhibition at Lesley University’s Nancy & Edward Roberts Gallery, opened her speech last Friday at its opening reception.
She went on to mention that in her career as a curator for a rare book library, people often ask her, “What’s your oldest book?” In response, Rogers combs through a variety of objects, such as portable wax tablets from Ancient Greece, to a modern-day iPad. “My point is that the book takes many forms, and has been evolving for thousands of years, just as language has.”
The show’s 54 pieces are split into three distinct sections: Space. Time. Movement, Music. Language. Memory, and Substance, Presence. Persistence. Each section offers a different perspective on how the form of a book was used within the art, and how the artists integrated their own definitions of books into the works. From the introduction, entitled “Reading,” Rogers sets the overall tone for the show: “From genesis of idea to finished form, the book continues to evolve, born of the universal passion to communicate… with words and beyond them.”
In the section “Space. Time. Movement,” the pieces push conventional boundaries of what a book can constrict, illustrating the intangible. For example, with Mauro Bellei’s “Cent mille petits points,” the viewer is forced to observe every angle and corner of this piece. Made from 13 sheets of white paper with matte black coating one side, and, forming an accordion-style strip while also being letter-pressed white into the black side, 10 full-page polygons fill the book. Accompanied with the laser-cut-shapes are brief comments on the opposite side of the page; however, these words can only be viewed as the pages are turned, or if it is illuminated from behind. Bellei’s hope is that his work elicits “unexpected responses.”
Within the same section hangs “Bubble High,” by Katherine Jones. Jones’ work pulls the viewer in by the hanging, parallel, lined strips of paper increasing in length until reaching the center point of a triangle. In approaching the piece, I almost didn’t notice the poem, by Retta Bowen, that was printed onto the paper. The poem deals entirely with weather, and how inconsistent it is, thus playing on the vulnerability of the piece juxtaposed with the sturdy base in which these strips of paper are connected. In her speech, Rogers mentioned, “At first glance, the weightless fragility of Bubble High is deceptive, [however] the work explores the tension between safety and danger, security and vulnerability.”
The next section of the exhibit, “Substance. Presence. Persistence.” spoke of the impression a book can leave with a person, and how the feeling of that is almost inarticulate in explanation. The works included were meant to leave the viewer a wordless understanding of the message conveyed in each piece.
Rogers touched upon a specific piece in her speech that she felt resonated the most with that sentiment. “Le 6 Avril, 1944” looks simple enough: an open box is exposed to the viewer with a deep, yellow top. However, upon closer inspection, the title of the piece is inscribed, as well as two, parallel paragraphs: the first in French, the second in English. The inscription describes that on April 6th, 1944, 44 Jewish children were arrested and deported to the concentration camp, Auschwitz; all of their names are etched into the mirrored sides of the bottom portion of the box, echoing the black-and-white photograph offers, with two bare trees with branches looming over the silhouette of a farmhouse and an open, hilly field. The title-card mentions that the mirrors act as echoes against the heavy weight of the crimes committed, and it is demonstrated beautifully as each name faces an opposite one.
The last section of the show, “Music. Language. Memory” deals how artists use “negative space, metaphor, symbols, code and illusory surface traces,” and reminds of how permanence is nonexistent, in accordance to the introduction. This technique is wholly and skillfully utilized in the piece, “In the Presence of Absence,” by Harriet Bart. 20.5 x 16 cm and bound by Jill Jevne, the viewer looks at what appears to be a glass cover shielding the thin veil of semi-translucent paper connected by an exposed spine. Stamped through the paper, the word “longing” is written in multiple languages. Beneath it, a statement begins, “In the presence of absence the river shifts, clouds play, light hides, and the moon slivers away.” The sense of longing and the desire to be longed after is universal in Bart’s piece, and compliments the form of a book.
Not only does “Reading With The Senses” offer a remarkable and creative challenge for artists to work outside of the traditional norm, but it allows viewers to walk away with challenged definition of a book, and the lingering question: how do you define a story? And, maybe even more importantly, how do you reflect that back into the world? Within this exhibit, you just might be able to figure that out.
(Reading With The Senses continues until April 17 at the Nancy & Robert Edwards Gallery in the Lunder Arts Center at Lesley University College of Art and Design, 1801 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, Mass. For more information, please visit http://www.lesley.edu/exhibit/reading-with-the-senses/).