When Art is An Open Book

. January 1, 2020.
Purgatory Press by Dikko Faust, Esther K. Smith and Susan Happersett, ed. 150, undated This square black portfolio, Purgatory Press, is one of several works in the collection created by groups of artists working collaboratively and includes thematically unrelated works from various sources. The most formally ambitious in this grouping is a tri-fold brochure, entitled Miss Manageability, which references beauty salon coupon books, where several of the “coupons” include quotes from icons of femininity like Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda.

A contemporary artists’ book collection

Who doesn’t love a good book? We enjoy these compact and reasonably priced objects as a matter of course. Even with the convenience of the internet and e-books, books are an adaptable form of communication. The feel, the heft, the sheer physical presence of a book is irresistible to booklovers, and there are quite a few booklovers in Ann Arbor.

That appreciation can be enhanced by reviewing hundreds of hand-made books by contemporary artists that rest in Duderstadt Center on the University of Michigan’s North Campus. Accomplished Ann Arbor book artist Barbara Brown was my guide on a recent tour of this subterranean storage area, which she narrated with her encyclopedic knowledge of the medium.

Collecting artist-made books

University of Michigan librarian Annette Haines began collecting artist-made books in the early 2000s and,  though she has since moved to California to pursue a career in fine art, the collection has continued to grow through the efforts of curator and librarian Jamie Vander Broek. Rebecca Price works with Vander Broek to conserve, catalog and curate several unusual collections that represent various areas of contemporary visual culture. She seeks and acquires rare and unique printed treasures for the collection at book fairs and through the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS).

A brief overview and a few highlights

Because artist-made books are relatively fragile, they are not as readily available as most other books. Would-be collectors will find handmade books by contemporary artists offered for sale in many art galleries.  WSG Gallery, on Main Street in Ann Arbor, hosts a biennial exhibit of book art, curated by Barbara Brown, and books of this type are also available at frequent regional book fairs such as the Ann Arbor Public Library’s recent, Wayzgoose and Printing Festival.  Viscerally tactile, conceptually complex and relatively low-priced, artist-made books are a natural fit for Ann Arbor’s book-loving public.

20 Slices by Ben Denzer, ed. 10

On a humorous note, Price finished her show-and-tell with a small, bright yellow book, 20 Slices, with “pages” of 20 individually wrapped slices of American cheese.  Rumors about the long shelf life of processed food notwithstanding, 20 Slices presented some unique challenges to book conservation. The tome resides in a box with some silica desiccant after the curators had experimented briefly and unsuccessfully with a small refrigeration unit. 

Dress Code Strictly Enforced
by Women’s Studio Workshop,
ed. 75, 2018

Another collaborative effort, on a far more serious theme, is presented in Dress Code Strictly Enforced. The book operates on the principle of the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse, where sections of a figure— the head, torso, and legs/feet— are separated so that each part can be re-combined with those of other figures. With each change, the accompanying text adjusts to reflect different and often unfair requirements and outcomes, elegantly illustrating how the physical form of an artist-made book can reinforce the content.

Domestic Notes
by Eileen White, ed. 5, 2017

British artist Eileen White’s concertina folio (a book form that folds out, fan-like, into three-dimensional space) contains a variety of found papers from English charity shop sales in the 1940s. The contrast between the concertina book’s  “feminine” interior and “masculine” exterior surface explores the complex interplay between domestic and public life.


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