[Metroactive Arts]


  'Book #9' Blade Reader: Gaza Bowen's 'Book #9' uses found objects to create a narrative of meaning long since forgotten.

Fictitious Identities

When is a book not a book? Nine artists launch a playful inquiry into the meaning of narrative

By Christina Waters

IN THE OPENING of Lewis Carroll's classic, Alice muses, "What is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?" The voyager through Wonderland might have found the answer to her question in an exhibition at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

"This Is Not a Book" disorients our preconceptions and invites us to read without words. The assembled works of nine Bay Area artists certainly represent variations on the theme of "book." Yet in each case, from Santa Cruz artist Don Fritz's ceramic tomes to Ian Everard's pulp fiction doppelgängers, the narrative makes a guest appearance only in that twilight zone between artist and viewer, between the visual world and the kingdom of literary imagination.

The concept for the show, announced in its neosurrealist title, references the play of Dadaism, in which ordinary objects were pried loose from their everyday contexts and suddenly burst forth with radically new meanings. René Magritte's famous 1928 painting of a pipe, titled for maximum irony This Is Not a Pipe, sets the paradoxical tone for this show. Yet irony, certainly in the banal postmodern sense, is the least of the moods at work in this collection of well-chosen art objects.

Functioning more as narrative climates than overt displays, most of the pieces convey their own power source and almost all of them leave the observer with more questions than answers--the hallmark of a juicy exhibition. A healthy representation of the international reinvention of book arts, the ICA show is crowned by one of Gaza Bowen's "suite" of library rooms composed of reclaimed metal and haunted by a bittersweet prescience.

In Bowen's faded futurism Bibliotheca Memoria, library tables and chairs wait, rusting and frayed, for readers willing to turn pages of corroded copper wires, industrial lenses and saw blades and find there a narrative of meaning long since forgotten. A floor lamp stand made from a Weber kettle barbecue and another table lamp made of a gasoline can puns playfully on "gaslight."

Bowen, a Santa Cruz artist whose feminist installations involving handmade shoes vaulted her to fame in the late '80s, has orchestrated an inhabitable illusion of lost texts and post-tech implications that Philip K. Dick would have loved. Entire walls of "volumes" made of weathered, perforated, scarred and distressed aluminum siding bristle with quiet tension. What words are missing? What secrets will never be deciphered?

A similar mood is achieved in wildly different fashion by Victoria May's exquisite foldout book created of sewn transparent organza. Each "page" offers some slight nuance of nature--seeds, dried fish, tiny teeth, a hummingbird--and as we read, a subliminal and unseen narrative unfolds. What the narrative is, and what it means, lies deliciously below the threshold of words. In other words, we cannot actually put into words what these books are saying. They speak at a pre-linguistic level, and when they're at their best, they even dip beneath mere symbolism.

Ian Everard's disturbing tableau offers us side-by-side pulp romance novel covers--one the actual paperback, next to it a meticulously re-created watercolor. Sealed together into a glass box they seduce us with their cloned identity as fictional fiction. Is the artist's cover more fictional than the "real" fiction? Definitely disturbing.

Page Makers

TWO OTHER artists have taken alternate routes to literary play. In Paula Levine's handsomely crafted installation, bibles form the sacred subtext for a series of visual puns. "Peace," for example, appears only after the destruction of previous pages. Shredded, deep-fried, intricately deconstructed, the texts form a hall of mirrors, extending their own interpretation into infinity.

Brian Taylor departs from all the installation and conceptual inclinations with a series of photographic handmade books that come closest to traditional form and content. Hand-tinted and collaged, like the early books by Anselm Kiefer, they offer abrupt juxtapositions of supple imagery that imprint the viewer in the manner of dreams. Unidentified narrative objects, their significance surfaces only after the visual sighting.

"This is Not a Book" not only underlines the ICA's seriousness of mission--the cult of the book continues to model the frontier of handmade arts--but offers much playful food for eye, mind and collective unconscious. Whether or not you care to inquire into the artistic meaning of texts, or ruminate over runes, like Bowen's, that have been forgotten or not yet invented, this show is sure to provide some surprises and good old-fashioned surrealist pranks. The cartoon books by Don Fritz, gorgeous chunks of raku-fired ceramic covered with naughty children and mysterious Asian graffiti, announce one of the prime directives. Telescopes for the subconscious, they extend our vision into a time and a space before words.

This Is Not a Book is at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, 451 S. First St., San Jose, through April 28. Gallery hours are 10am-5pm Tues-Fri; until 8pm on Thu; noon-5pm Sat. Closed Sun and Mon. 408.283.8155.


From the March 29-April 4, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.