An alternative summer reading list
By Lori Waxman, Special to the Tribune
5:05 PM CDT, July 13, 2011
Poring over the latest John Grisham or Danielle Steel with sand in my toes, the sun overhead and a towel underneath is not my idea of a perfect summer afternoon. There’s the danger of the sun, and the impossibility of finding a truly comfortable reading position while lying down without a headboard — but most of all there’s the problem of hollow, page-turning fluff, hundreds and hundreds of sheets of it.
Fortunately alternatives exist, some of the most peculiar of which are sewn, pasted, drawn, photographed and even just plain written by artists. Two current group shows, one at Western Exhibitions, the other at Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts, present a season’s worth of inspired reading in the form of artists’ books, zines and pamphlets, plus text-based drawings and sculptures.
If you think reading and art don’t go together, take comfort in the title of the exhibition at Western. “People Don’t Like to Read Art” it’s called, and how true that is. Indeed, many people don’t like to read art. Maybe they expect pictures and are disappointed by text, maybe they demand an easy chair or nothing. Myself, I’m as partial to words as images, and I’ll stand for an hour if the art compels it (or else cadge a chair from the gallery assistant).
What’s worth reading in this first show depends on your preference for celebrity biography or restaurant menu, religious text or fashion magazine. Simon Evans’s “Monument for Sun Related Events,” a golden pyramid covered in diaristic episodes written out on scraps of lined legal paper, pulses with a paradoxically ancient yet youthful energy. Deb Sokolow drafts three different versions of an anecdote about Willem de Kooning, evidencing the many ways one can tell a story.
The lengthiest read must be Angie Waller’s research on originality and copyright. A tome of highlighted official documents sits on a table for anyone willing to brave the legalese, but thankfully Waller also provides CliffsNotes of a sort in the form of a handy compass summarizing the verdicts in cases involving Jeff Koons, Tiffany & Co., Cash Money Records and others.
See if you can use Waller’s device to determine the originality of works such as Kirsten Stoltmann’s acerbic, altered magazine pages and Meg Hitchcock’s Quran collage. Or Rebecca Blakley’s annotated On the Road, which features Post-it notes detailing the artist’s Kerouac-inspired cross-country search for a purpose in life. Full of romantic expectations and their thwarting, it was hard to put down. So I sat on the gallery floor and read the whole book, at least Blakley’s part of it.
Over at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, I’d have just settled in to one of a dozen inventively reconfigured chairs and put my feet up on an upside-down desk. Part book exhibition and part gallery show, “The World as Text” is foremost a reading room designed by John Preus in collaboration with a group of students, to be as intriguing as the books it displays. Drawers, loosened from old wooden desks, hang on the walls and become shelves. Bereft of drawers, the clunky desks lighten up and stack themselves impossibly high, all the way to the ceiling. Chair tops, liberated from conventional bases, perch on barrels, benches, bed posts and stacks of colored wood whose edges read like cut pages. Everything looks rickety and precarious but feels solid and thoughtful once you settle in and begin to read. And read you should. With 75 books selected by 15 guest curators, there’s something for everyone — from Sophie Calle to Susan Hiller, from Allan Kaprow to Dieter Roth, from Michelle Grabner to Gregg Bordowitz. Those are some of the big names, local and international. Most exciting, as in any great bookshop or library, are the unexpected discoveries shelved next to the book you were originally looking for. Here these include an exhaustive visual anthology of geological drawings accumulated by Serge Onnen, and an ode to underdog street sentimentality by photographer Matt Gallagher and poet Dominic Palermo.
With stitched red letters bleeding through canvas pages, recto infusing verso, Dianna Frid’s “Leak” questions the way we understand language — do the words at the beginning of a sentence help us predict the end, or does the end send us back to reinterpret the beginning? Heidi Norton and Karsten Lund’s “After the Fires of a Little Sun” pieces together a book of many books, annotated and color flagged, with the artists’ meditations on perception and plants tipped into the pages that inspired them, much as a Victorian naturalist would’ve pressed specimens between a volume’s leaves. Their sources, by Dewey and Thoreau and others, are shelved just outside the reading room, together with a small terrarium and other related objects, part of a corresponding exhibition by some of the local artists whose books appear in the show, among them Joseph Grigely and Deborah Stratman. Another is Rebecca Mir, whose self-published chapbook “Between Mountains and Sea” uses text, image, concrete poetry and diagrams to meditate on gay marriage, ice cream, alter egos and freedom. She lists dozens of crushes but always returns to her love for high peaks and bodies of water.
A selection of modest publications from the 1960s and ’70s includes an issue of Art-Rite magazine devoted to artists’ books. What do artists’ books mean to you, the editors asked, and some three dozen artists answered, some pragmatically, some poetically, some annoyingly. John Baldessari provided the humor. All artists, he wrote, should have a cheap line. Indeed. Artists’ books may not be inexpensive by the standards of trade books, and they may not be discounted (or even available) on Amazon.com, but compared with conventional artwork, they’re a bargain, and far less precious.
You could, you really could, take them to the beach.