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