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an exhibition by BC members of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild March 27 – May 8, 2014
review by Penny Parry

It is the opening night of the exhibit and it is so crowded in this small gallery, that I take my first impression from afar, and it is this: what a tremendous sampling of handwork I am about to walk into! Moreover, it doesn’t feel like a sampling of bits and pieces but rather a sampling of a thoughtful collection in which the viewer can immerse herself in the very ‘idea’ of ‘book’ – part and parcel.

All handmade, there are framed and unframed pages with writing and without; the substrates of leather and paper hint at the infinity of variations available from which books are made; there are book forms from conventional, to alternative to sculptural; there are serious and whimsical thoughts portrayed; there are visual & text ‘narratives’; there are tableaux and installations; there are works you can touch [with white gloves provided] and those where plexiglass boxes stand between me and the work. If a viewer is not careful, it would be easy to lose track of time in such a sampling. But if a viewer breathes deeply and allows the variations and riffs to ‘soak in’, creativity will run gloriously wild with all that can be done under the ‘idea’ of ‘book’. This is indeed, a worthwhile sampling to explore – I am sure it has and will provoke viewers to re-consider their understanding of the idea of ‘book’.

Winding my way through the crowd on opening night, I enter the small gallery space – 110sq/ft.
– surprised to see that 46 pieces have been arranged in a rather amazing way: each piece seems to sit comfortably in its own little world. I realize that this feat is the result of using the space in as many different ways as possible. This is not an exhibit of single rigidly aligned wall pieces. Neither is this an exhibit of wall pieces only – there are plinths with and without plexi tops. This is not an exhibit of only ‘do not touch please – these are books’, but this collection, while including some of the ‘look but don’t touch’ variety, also includes some of the ‘please touch carefully’ variety, some of the more ‘formal art’ framed-and-hanging-on-the-wall works, and one piece at least that only the artist would dare to open as it was rather complicated to do so. This cacophony of arrangements forces the viewer to constantly move up/down, peer over and sideways, finger some pieces and grumble at not being able to do so with others etc. The end result was that I had the impression of visiting multiple small spaces – a turn here, a crouching down there – gave me the impression of a separateness of space for each of the works.

Kudos to those who set up the exhibit – the works never ran into one another – despite the small space, and the diversity of work formats, materials, and ideas gave a true sampling of the limitless possibilities contained within the ‘idea’ of ‘book’!

Let me turn now to a few of the individual works themselves. Here I speak with a personal as well as a formal critical eye – for the personal always enters the critique so one may as well admit this, no? Let me begin with works that appealed to me on first view and at which I found myself taking a second look. The works are described in the order in which they drew my eye to them. They vary in the level of expertise shown. I should also say that I was drawn to many but in mentioning certain works here, I tried to choose samples of the kind of qualities which might attract a viewer.

I fell in love with ‘Les Escaliers du Quebec’ as bound by Dawn Skinner. In part, it was seeing the wonderful line drawings of Ghislaine Bureau and words of Luc Bureau bringing to life this icon of Quebec/Michel Tremblay culture. In this exhibition context, it was seeing how Dawn’s choices of formal aspects of setting the text and drawings into book format were so well integrated with this content: her use of soft goatskin in a rather regal red-burnt orange for the cover and use of cream colored pages spoke of something extra-ordinary [in the order of an icon] being inside and, through the warmth of the orange and off-white paper, she activated a recollection of the warmth of ‘la famille’ – that cultural partner of les escaliers; the accordion format is of course a natural echo of the structure of steps. All, simply and carefully done – a good example of integration of formal properties married well with content.

The first time I thought of breaking a plexiglass cover was when I came upon the works of Jan Kellett: a group of very small conventional format books. These were miniatures, with carefully done pages in between – all stitched and carefully bound. This work spoke of incredible skill and attention to detail – hints of embossing, small individual hook and ‘boldt’ book casing closures, described pochoirs, etc. all just out of my reach behind the plexiglass. This work caught my attention not only for the fine work of the obvious and other hinted-at details, but also because it raises the eternal conundrum of those who make book-as-art pieces: the inevitable risk of showing work easily damaged by the viewer and yet, in protecting it from damage, limiting access to its treasures. I did not break the plexi but – maybe if I am there when the work is taken down, I could o so carefully, and under supervision, peek at these tiny beautiful constructions, no?

I have to admit that, in any situation, I am drawn to what most challenges my day-to-day mindset. In this case, what most stretched my conscious notion of the idea of ‘book’. Several of the works moved outside of the familiar book conventions many of us are often used to. Here, there were framed single pages of careful calligraphic writing, and images stitched together to make kimono wall-hanging forms, and a complete small sculptural installation. However, the work that turned my mind upside down was that of Sylvia Wong – big, bold black, gray and white collographs – images with no words on outsize pages. How could this be in an exhibit of ‘book’? But then, I stared at them and my mind saw ‘stories’ and I recalled that the ‘idea’ of ‘book’ includes the concept of story. This work was highlighting that aspect of the concept of book for me.

The other work that caught and held my attention was an incredibly detailed ‘stage set’, The Merchant of Venice by Joan Byers and Virginia Porter. Here, the book is ‘part of’, not simply on display as an object – the book is shown in all its functional glory. This maquette is complete with a small figure in mid stride and in elegantly, hand-stitched robes, holding a copy of a small, perfectly tooled Merchant of Venice. A larger copy – seeming to remind us that this is a maquette not a real scene, equally well-crafted is off to the right. A complete world on which to ponder about the beautifully bound books of old – history, the play itself, the fine quality of the detail across media, the future of ‘the book’ ……

There are three other works that I found myself returning to. As an aside, I should say that being drawn back to a work is an indication to me that there is something of quality and/or creativity to it – something beyond a first attraction – usually those indications of considered and practiced application of skill to an idea. Field Hospital: The Last Writings of Lt. Colonel John McCrae and Poems of an Oil-free Coast by Frances Hunter are just such works. These books evidence carefully considered decisions of technique in light of content. They also leave some questions unanswered – why, for example was only a back cover hard? Who was Lt. Colonel McCrae? Small mysteries which, in the overall context of careful craft, quietly draw one back to explore more!

I found myself checking back and forth among the three small accordion books of Gina Page. They seemed familiar – in the sense of comfortable – their maker being a person who is comfortable with the technique and can relax in applying it. In some ways, they were similar to each other [accordion form, personal stories] but each one evidenced small differences in use color, in use of transfer technique etc. in concert with the content. These works speak in their apparent simplicity of the treasure of the personal – a story belongs to one person and yet to us all.

Just when I thought I had finished writing about the exhibition, I recalled that I went back to a group of pieces that screamed of whimsy. These small ‘sculptural’ formats of Lorraine Douglas showed potential to play.

So, in closing, a brief word on one other aspect of diversity that this exhibit included. As this was not a juried exhibit, the works evidence a wide range of skill. While all works showed the love of the makers for the ‘book’, the skill levels of the works range from those whose technical skill is in the early stages of the craft, to those who, showing some technical prowess, have not yet mastered the marriage of idea and technique, to those who have strong creative potential but need to work more on technique, to those few whose work evidences a marriage of technique and idea with the result that each aspect is enhanced.

These of course are just the observations of one viewer – I hope they stimulate you to go and experience this wonderful ‘sampling’ of the ‘idea of book’ for yourself!