Saturday, April 15, 2023

Artists' Books at the Mary E. Black Gallery

Mary E Black GalleryThe Embodied Press: Queer Abstraction and the Artists' Book, is a retrospective exhibit of artists' books, currently on display at the Mary E. Black Gallery in Halifax. Curated by Anthea Black, the exhibit features the work of 14 artists with works spanning over 45 years, from the 1970s to present day. The 14 featured artists are: Nadine Bariteau, Joshua Beckman, Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, Edie Fake, Tatana Kellner, Kate Laster, Emily McVarish, Heidi Neilson, Lyman Piersma, Pati Scobey, Miller & Shellabarger, Stan Shellabarger, Nicholas Shick, Clarissa Sligh.

This exhibit features "artists' books and publications by queer and transgender artists, from graphic novels and collage-works to bold experiments with letterpress, screenprinting, video, performance, and risograph." Curator Anthea Black, a Canadian artist and writer who is an Assistant Professor at California College of the Arts, recently gave an artist's talk at NSCAD about the exhibition, where they posed the question: "So what happens when a book object (or a body) 'frustrates legibility' or becomes difficult to read? It must be felt. Held in our hands. Absorbed."

The artists' books on display are absorbing, but unfortunately, they cannot be felt or handled. Many are protected under plexiglass cases. The majority of the works are strongly focused on content. Form seems to follows content. It's as though structure is an afterthought. That being said, there is an integration of content, structure, and message.

Nicholas Shick - RadiateThe precision of these well-constructed artists' books is impressive. They consist mainly of editions versus one-of-a-kind creations. Nicholas Shick's series of 9 books entitled Radiate, is pure eye candy with each volume being a series of shades of one rainbow colour. Bound using the drum leaf technique and letterpress printed on Mohawk superfine paper stock, the books are displayed with all the pages fanned out and is a visual magnet.

Also on display are a few zines (which are saddle-stitched) and Untitled Hand Book (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6), by Miller & Shellabarger, one of which is labelled as "case binding" but is constructed using a Japanese stab binding (tortoise shell pattern). The other letterpress books in this edition have pages printed in brown, pale blue and gold jewel tones that positively shimmer. It is the content, not the structure, that dazzles us. The pages entice the viewer to caress and touch.

Kate Laster - Yearbook Photo MissingLamination is used for a few books and these books in particular challenge our notion of book structure. Kate Laster's Yearbook Photo Missing consists of multi-coloured, laminated tinsel (that resembles ribbons) and found photos. However, it is the backs of the photos, each of which are each inscribed (and resemble cue cards), which face the viewer, not the photo image. And there is more transparent plastic than there is content. Blank paper pages in book construction are rarely questioned. Then why are pages that are made of transparent plastic so unsettling?

Other distinctive laminated paper cut accordion fold books by Kate Laster include Waiting Game - Bookfair, an oversized four panel "pamphlet" (standing about 20 inches in height) that is reminiscent of Papel Picado, Mexican cut-out paper art. Kate Laster - Road Map AccordionHowever, Kate Lester’s approach is not solely using cut-out patterns and graphics as Mexicans do, but Laster has substituted stylized letters of varying sizes that hint of folk art. The cut-out stencils get their power from seeing right through them. Laster also riffs on this form in Roadmap Accordion, where the book is laid out on the display table (like a road map) and the cut-out stencils get their power from the shadows created from the strong beam of light overhead. In this case, the message is amplified by the light and is ephemeral, like the material.

There is An Ocean by Joshua Saul Beckman is an 18-panel accordion fold book with six horizontal zig-zag lines of blue and grey thread that run continuously and precisely for the entire length of the book. The lines appear to have been machine-sewn without ripping the paper. Joshua Saul Beckman - There is an OceanStan Shellabarger has three accordion fold books on display, each of varying lengths, whose panels feature a series of swirly dots set against white and pale blue backgrounds, with solid dark blue front and back cover panels. The dots give this otherwise static display a fanciful sense of movement. Random dots are also used in Heidi Neilson's Atlas of Punctuation (letterpress in case binding), which only features periods. While the dots may appear randomly placed on the page, one is left wondering are they simply punctuation place holders for the text that has been completely removed.

As Anthea Black notes, "Artists in The Embodied Press make important visual and material choices in their use of printing techniques, sequencing, and manipulation or absence of text... These ideas find great resonance in the artists' book field as it radically expands the ways books can be produced, read, and understood as a form of culture."

The Mary E. Black Gallery is run by Centre for Craft Nova Scotia and is located at 1061 Marginal Road, Halifax, beside Pier 21. This exhibit runs until Sunday May 7, 2023.
Review by Charles Salmon

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