Books that are not books
by Jack Fischer
April 8, 2001, San Jose Mercury News

Review of: "This is Not a Book," at the Institute of Contemporary Art, San Jose, CA


Let's all be glad that New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani lives so far away.

Otherwise someone would have to explain to him why it's OK that the artist Paula Levine, one of the bright lights at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art's new show, has pureed a Bible and poured it into two mason jars -- one for each Testament.

Levine's work -- which is witty and not the least bit sacrilegious -- is just one of several inventive and provocative elements making up ``This is Not A Book,'' on exhibit through April 28.

The show's title is a play on surrealist René Magritte's famous painting ``The Treachery of Images,'' which shows a pipe above the words ``This is not a pipe.'' Magritte was pointing out that the image is not the same thing as the object, and that viewers who forget it are at risk of falling into a fun-house mirror where reality and illusion are indistinguishable.

The nine Bay Area artists in ``This is Not a Book'' are up to something similar, although their methods are very different from the wily Belgian's. Here the subject is books, but books deprived of their primary purpose: There's nothing to read, as the artists deploy books as objects and explore all their symbolic and metaphoric richness.

As Levine's work suggests, this is a show with a flavor that is strongly conceptual -- an unduly intimidating term that just means that the artists' ideas are often at least as important as the objects they've created to convey them.

It's a fascinating time to consider books, what with digital technology on the verge of replacing them with piles of electrons printed on command. There's nothing like obsolescence to make us see more clearly the meanings that have accrued to culturally significant objects. And artists are often the advance guard, dissecting those meanings before the rest of us catch on.

Such notions help explain why people these days are wearing typewriter keys, gears and tiny slide rules as jewelry: Deprived of their original purposes, their beauty and metaphoric meanings become evident. Prepare for artists' musings on Palm Pilots in 2030.

None of this is to say that ``This is Not a Book'' is either dry or obscure. Virtually all the artists have a healthy respect for the importance of aesthetically pleasing objects -- or curious and confounding ones -- as a way to lure viewers to their ideas.

Of the artists here, Gay Schy seems the most directly interested in the aesthetic and sensual qualities of books as physical objects. Her deeply shellacked collages of bindings and pages suggest the ways books can evoke memory and time, while her large mixed-media piece ``Memoirs of a Bibliophyle'' shows how pieces of books can be deployed to create a Mondrian-like study of geometric form.

Santa Cruz artist Ian Everard's meticulously crafted trompe l'oeil of pulp paperback covers are a stealthy comment on the values a society reveals through the objects it creates. By painstakingly recreating mass-produced objects, Everard asks viewers to consider them more closely than they otherwise would -- and, in the process, to explore unintended meanings.

The showstopper here, at least in terms of aesthetics, is Gaza Bowen's room-sized installation ``Bibliotheca Memoria,'' a complete library reading room, right down to the desk lamps, created entirely from rusty scrap metal salvaged from dumps. Once you get past its delightful tactile presence, there's time to meditate on a society more preoccupied with things than with ideas -- there's nothing to read here, either -- and, of course, on planned obsolescence.

Brian Taylor, a professor of art and design at San Jose State, transforms fragments of photographs and text into visual poetry in his handmade books. Like many artists who incorporate photographs into their work these days, Taylor uses them less as factual documents and more as evocations of dreams. Taylor's books lie open but are contained in shadow boxes, making the contents of the remaining pages a tantalizing mystery.

Lucy Puls returns the show to its conceptual underpinnings with ``Continuato (Encyclopedia Brittanica).'' Taking an entire outdated set of encyclopedia volumes as her raw material, Puls removed the bindings, then stacked and glued together every single page. The result is a sealed pillar of knowledge that is both a graceful sculpture and a meditation on ``sacred'' texts as totems.

Tony May, a professor of art at San Jose State, uses old books as construction materials for everything from track lighting to roofing shingles, as in ``Book Roof Test,'' where he set a peaked roof made of books in his backyard to deteriorate. Is this a reflection on the perishability of knowledge -- or merely, as May waggishly suggests, evidence that ``books don't make a particularly serviceable building material''?

Other artists in the show are Don Fritz, whose ceramic books use icons of popular culture to juxtapose child and adult perspectives on life, and Victoria May, whose tiny accordion-like book sets the abstraction of the printed word aside and includes actual objects encased in organza.

As for Levine, the artist says she intended her ``Canned'' (that Bible in mason jars) as a commentary on the hermetic nature of biblical teachings, rather than any observation about religion in a consumer society.

But she likes that idea, too -- and addresses it elsewhere in the show with ``Deep Fried,'' a Bible dipped in beaten eggs, covered in matzo meal and cooked in kosher oil.

``It smells delicious,'' she says.