“We all know what a book is, right?” begins Mark Ritchie’s curatorial statement. He goes on to define the book in terms most of us understand: A vessel that contains words, sometimes visual images, made of paper, sewn or glued together in codex form to gather a group of pages that can be experienced in a sequence — left to right in Western cultures.
The central and very thorny question “Narratives of the Possible: Artists’ Books” asks — and partly answers — is: What is a book?
The exhibit represents the first Ucross Art Gallery exhibit devoted entirely to the book arts. It includes work by 20 artists from Wyoming and the Western U.S. as well as from Australia, New Zealand and France. The exhibit has moved from Ucross to the University of Wyoming Visual Arts Building; it will be up through Friday.
In my view, the historical notion of the book also includes portability — the book can travel with the reader or viewer from room to room in a house, can be taken on long car trips, engaged with while trapped in an airplane or waiting endlessly at the doctor’s office. The book is something we touch and hold and carry — a talisman, a challenge, a pleasure.
While there are objects in “Narratives of the Possible” that adhere to some degree to Ritchie’s and to my statement about the book, others do not. The two artists whose contributions most resemble the accepted and largely expected notion of the book are Ian Van Coller of Bozeman, Montana, and Aleta Braun of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Van Coller gives us two photographic collections of glaciers, one from Antarctica, the other from Mount Kilimanjaro. Braun’s contribution, “Open Book,” is a visual rendering of Judith Hill’s poem “Wage Peace” written after the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center. These books are hard bound with paper pages that can be turned. But they’re fantastically large — no tossing these in your backpack or reading them on a crowded bus.
Another of the works that retains the “I guess we all know what a book is” notion but pushes hard and with a great sense of humor against it is Colorado artist Alicia Bailey’s “Cities and Eyes.” The coptic bound book features excerpts from Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities,” in which Marco Polo describes 55 imaginary cities. What could be more in line with the history of fine-book printing if not this handmade, limited edition devoted to a major literary work?
But wait. The pages are rigid transparent plexiglass. You can see right through them and there’s nothing there but some lines that could be a map of Polo’s travels to China. The imaginary city excerpts are presented on paper scrolls separate from the book and both rigid book and flexible paper can be packed up and housed in the accompanying custom-made box.
One of the books that is least like what I expect a book to be is Utah artist Marnie Powers-Torrey’s collection of roadside objects found while walking and displayed here in boxes of various sizes hung from a wall. Some of these examples of what Powers-Torrey calls rubbish seem to be petrified plants, roots or branches; others seem more like industrial objects gone to rust, nature grinding them down.
Another of the least traditionally book-like works — and one I was especially drawn to — was by Andrea Przygonski of Adelaide, South Australia. Przygonski’s “Dream Travels During a Pandemic” derives from “being locked down with nowhere to go but our imagination.” It features a series of standing found slides — remember slides? — with digital images and digital collages on transparencies, the slides going zigzag like the extended bellows of two accordions with a light shining between and guiding them, a dream of distance and motion, glowing blue and white across a transparent bridge. I’m not so much describing the work as inviting viewers to see it and to see all the work in this exhibit exploring the limits and possibilities of the book — a vessel that carries more than we might expect.
“Narratives of the Possible: Artists’ Books” was at Ucross through October. It will be on display at the University of Wyoming’s Visual Arts Gallery in the UW Visual Arts Building through Friday. Admission is free.
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.