The Art of the Book

With our new media show, Currents: New Media New Mexico, officially finished and deinstalled, I thought it was time to take a look at a more traditional form for our next exhibit: the book. Don't expect this show to be conventional, however. On the contrary, The Art of the Book has one the broadest arrays of objects I've put on view in any single gallery at the RMAC.

The large, rainbow-hued installation in the center is based on a deck of cards. Victoria Rabinowe, Labyrinth, 2016, acrylic paint on plywood, dimensions vary.
Before we plunge into this show in earnest though, let me ask you a question: what is a book? While Kindles, eBooks, and other technologies have broadened our understanding of what can be considered a book, chances are we’d imagine an object containing written text, whether it is a novel, memoir, or guide. Yet the book is also a versatile and often personal art form, and many artists have embraced its historical function as a means of communication for creative ends. The Art of the Book explores the diverse world of contemporary book arts in New Mexico, with each featured artist presenting a different interpretation of the book as both a physical object and means of visual expression.

For this show I sought out book artists from all over New Mexico, and eventually narrowed down my list to ten different individuals. Let's take a look at what they've made.

Zachariah Rieke, Canvas Book, 2004-2010, unrefined earth pigments, ground bone, charcoal, acrylic medium, found Chinese papers, raw canvas, bound in water buffalo leather on hardboard, 16" x 26" x 1.5" (closed). Courtesy of the artist.

Canvas Book plays with our expectations of books as text-based objects. Bound with a traditional leather cover, its raw canvas pages contain abstract paintings rather than text. Combining medieval bookmaking techniques and Abstract Expressionist aesthetics, this work expresses meaning through a nonverbal language of line and texture. 

Joy Campbell, Kusudama Flowers, 2015, altered music pages, 15" x 14" x 7". Image courtesy of the artist.

Joy Campbell creates altered books, taking extant paperbacks and other texts and transforming them into sculptural forms through collage, deconstruction, and origami. Kusudama, translated as “medicine ball,” is a type of modular Japanese origami consisting of pyramidal units of paper that are folded into stylized flowers. These flowers are then sewn or glued together to form a larger shape such as a sphere, bouquet, or in the case of Campbell’s work, a pyramid. An ancient art form, Kusudama constructions were initially used for potpourri or incense, but today are primarily decorative in nature.

Katya Reka, Desert Dirt, 2015, handmade abaca paper, wood, thread, dirt, seeds, 8" x 5" x 2" closed, 10 pages. Image courtesy of the artist.

Katya Reka explores the physicality of existence in her work, with her books addressing such themes as the body and ecology. For Desert Dirt, she created her own papers using indigenous New Mexico vegetation and soil, turning these raw materials into tactile and visual meditations on the natural environment. This book belongs to a series of the same name, with each book assuming different dimensions and tactile qualities based on the organic materials used.

Gail Rieke, Paris Journal, 2010-2016, mixed media, dimensions vary. Image courtesy of the artist.

Gail Rieke combines collage, found art, drawing, and other techniques to create her mixed media books and journals. For Paris Journal, she has taken a suitcase and filled it with ephemera that she collected, altered, or created during her travels abroad. The resulting tactile journal has a physical presence that can be rearranged and altered, paralleling the variability of memory itself.

Penne Mobley, Never Forget, 2016, fabric, ink, paint, 63" x 20". Image courtesy of the artist.

Penne Mobley’s books assume the form of handmade dresses, merging narrative and fashion. Based in historical research, these works address traumatic events such as the Holocaust and American slavery. By employing clothing as the support for her work, Mobley emphasizes the humanity of her subjects, reminding viewers that these experiences happened to real people.

Priscilla Spitler, Keeping Time, 2009, full goatskin binding, leather onlay, cut foil stamping, gold tooling, 8 7/8" x 8 3/4" x 5/8". Image courtesy of the artist.

Based in Truth or Consequences, Priscilla Spitler is a binder and bookmaker whose pictorial bindings reference the content contained within her books. Keeping Time is an autobiographical work, and features both her original text and artwork.

Sialia Rieke, Into This World #13, 2011, bound 2013 (edition of 50), woodblock prints, hand-marbled paper, grey buffalo leather, 5.5" x 8" (closed). Image courtesy of the artist.

Into this World is a collaboration between three artists. Natalie Goldberg composed the text, Clare Dunne designed and printed the woodcuts, and Sialia Rieke printed the text and set the binding. Printed in an edition of 50, Rieke bound each volume using different materials and techniques, resulting in works that are individually unique while simultaneously belonging to an edition that is unified in theme and content. #13 highlights hand-marbled paper on its cover.

Susan Moore, The Dirty Dozen, 2015, altered paperback books, 30" x 24". Image courtesy of the artist.

Assembled from twelve romance novels, The Dirty Dozen humorously acknowledges its source material through its title. Artist Susan Moore uses discarded books for much of her work, transforming these mundane, textual objects into new, sculptural forms through deconstruction and collage.

Tom Leech and Patricia Musick (calligraphy), And Yet the Books/The Book-Throwing Incident, 2015, marbled, handmade paper, collaged page fragments from Plutarch's Lives, dimensions vary. Image courtesy of the artist.

Tom Leech is the Director of the Palace Press at the New Mexico History Museum and Palace of the Governors. He is also highly accomplished at paper marbling, a decorative technique that emulates the appearance of marble and similar stones. Often used as a writing surface for calligraphy, or as the endpapers for elaborately-bound volumes, marbled paper has long been connected with the book arts.

The actual text of this work contrasts differing attitudes toward books. And Yet the Books is a poem by Polish author Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) that reveres books as seemingly immortal objects that will long outlive their human creators. The “book throwing incident”, refers to a 2015 event, when a Santa Fe teacher was accused of throwing books at two students.

Victoria Rabinowe, Octagon Star, 2015, Rives BFK paper with sumi ink, dimensions vary. Image courtesy of the artist.

Victoria Rabinowe’s books are abstract, often nonverbal narratives based on dreams. Working in a variety of media, Rabinowe regularly uses unusual book formats such as accordion constructions, decks of cards, and geometric shapes such as the octagon.

As you can see, I took a very broad approach to my definition of a book, and the works on view consequently vary significantly in form, materials, and content. Yet in their diversity they share a passion for the book as both object and means of expression, and that's the beauty of art, really, the fact that we can have so many different interpretations of a particular concept or idea. It reflects the diversity of humanity itself, for as a bewildering and sometimes aggravating as all our different, contradictory views or opinions may be, that variety is also the defining quality of existence as we know it.

So what is a book then? I don't have the definitive answer, but stop by if you're in the area and take a look at some very compelling responses to that question.