The No-Bake Cake Book (1988) has metal candles and acrylic frosting on the front cover. I put it in a white box and cut a hole lined with acetate to make a window so it would resemble a pastry box. It was to be a present for someone but my friend wasn't in his office when I dropped by, so I just left it on his desk. His co-workers noticed it a bit later, mistook it for a cake, and put it in the refrigerator for him. Luckily, it did not stay there too long.
Many artists' books have similar experiences. They mystify and surprise people. My books often do not look like books, appearing instead to be take-out food, matchbooks, rags, picture frames, boxes, decorator samples, or trash. Or sometimes they look completely normal. So normal, that you must look very closely to realize they are not what they seem. Dis cover Italian Monuments (1989) passes as the usual tourist book until it is apparent that the famous monuments have been photographed with scaffolding covering them and there is a handwritten text.
Artists' books involve inspection and interaction. They are sequential, dimensional, and require concentration. Artists' books are most surprising in that they do not usually hang on a wall or stand in a corner as many people expect art to be displayed. They are works of art that involve participation. It would be easier to say, "I work in a bank." Even my relatives express frustration about trying to explain what I do. "Oh what kind of artist? Books? You mean you make the cover? You do illustrations? You make children's books? You're a bookbinder? A writer?" As many people have never seen an artists' book; they find it hard to imagine one. But my relatives describe a book or two that I've made to try to get the idea across. However, each book differs so much from another that it is difficult to generalize.
In the broad spectrum of artists' books, certain things hold true. Each project is usually conceived and produced by one person. In this aspect, they are similar to independent films. There is no grand mechanism behind or above the artist supervising or editing the work, like a publishing house. Which is not to say that the artist doesn't seek advice or criticism during a project, or ask for help during certain stages of production. But in the creation of an artists' book, one person is usually making all the decisions concerning form, content, production, and distribution. Which is why most people have never heard of or seen artists' books.
The nature of each book dictates how it may or may not be circulated.
If a book is produced in a large edition and is not too fragile or expensive,
it may be sold in a "normal" bookstore where the buyer is
willing to stock something a little unusual. Some bookstores carry exclusively
artists' books. But some books are only made in unique copies, or they
are extremely small or large and unwieldy. Some are very delicate. These
books may be seen in museums and libraries or art galleries, and they
may be purchased through dealers of contemporary rare books. Other books
are made of volatile materials and may only last a few hours or a few
days. They represent a performance or experience which may be documented
but not sold or collected. Entropy
(1986) falls into this category. It consists of four think blocks of
ice with text frozen inside that melts in approximately eight hours.
At the end, the text remains in a puddle of water which eventually evaporates.
|My artistic expression takes the form of books because I
like to communicate ideas using words, symbols, images, materials, structures,
and sequences all at the same time. Books allow me to communicate on many
levels at once and seem to impose few limits. I may conduct research or
experiments and publish my findings in a form other than that of an academic
paper. I may write poetry and hide it inside an unexpected vehicle. I
may continuously explore new techniques and materials in order to convey
each concept. I am able to express my ideas without a publisher and I
don't usually need large amounts of money and people, or an audience present,
as is necessary for a theatrical performance or film. This is not to say
that books do not present constant challenges, which I also enjoy, but
they are challenges within my means.
The challenges exist on both a physical and conceptual level. Each book is usually inspired by an initial idea or structure. If the idea comes first, the appropriate materials, structure, and sequencing must be gradually resolved. If the structure is the original inspiration, a corresponding content must be developed. Occasionally, the structure and content are conceived at the same time, but the scrutiny of every physical and symbolic element of the book must follow. Each aspect of the book contributes to the whole, while attempting not to either be overly cryptic or too explanatory. When the book has text, the process, size, color, type, and placement must be considered. It may be letterpressed, rubber stamped, silkscreened, xeroxed, collaged, stenciled, rubbed, sewn, drawn, or as in Wax Promises (1991), linotyped on modeling clay and then baked in the cover. All the concerns are not only conceptual. The materials are also analyzed with respect to their physical properties. Special paper is chosen that will be less likely to fade, yellow, or become brittle over time. Glues have different properties as well, and each kind is appropriate for different situations. Sometimes a glue is needed that dries slowly, or one that is not too absorbent. Some attract insects and others contain chemicals that may damage certain materials. The structural elements are assembled and tested so they may last over time (except when they aren't supposed to) and be handled easily enough by the reader. The creation of the structure, and the relationship between the form and content of the books, encompass the inventive aspects of my work. The rest is based on factual information and observations collected in libraries, museums, trains, buses, streets, and random encounters.
I am so intrigued by reality and history that I do not find it necessary to invent things. Instead, I collect things, take notes and photographs, listen to people's stories, and do a lot of research. As I walk, I pick up playing cards, buttons, keys, negatives, messages, and puzzle pieces. I photograph gloves, shoes, socks, weeds, signs, posters, partially exposed buildings, and objects or materials being used in ways for which they were not intended. My books document how cultures, both ancient and modern, use materials and language, and what happens to these languages and materials over time. Often I underline the humorous and ironic aspects of these cultural phenomena, although sometimes the subject matter is quite bleak.
My greatest frustration lies in being able to produce only so many of the projects competing within me to be released each year. I feel as though I have already absorbed a lifetime of material, yet I know my research will never end as neatly and concisely as my books.