Group Text

U ntil recently, the word “book” usually meant “codex”—a text made up of pages sewn or glued together on one edge—as opposed to a scroll, for example, or a tablet of stone or clay. Digital technology has changed that assumption. “While this shift is lamentable in many regards,” Sara Kirk Hanley writes in the introduction to a new exhibition at Creative Arts Workshop, “positive outcomes have also ensued.” One of those positives—the “unleashing” of the codex from its longstanding job as the go-to format for books of all kinds—is the subject of Freed Formats: the book reconsidered, on view through July 28.

This traveling exhibition, curated by Chris Perry and Alice Walsh, includes 135 works of “book art” by 53 artists—six of them from Connecticut—who push the envelope in a number of directions, playing with the codex form, with text itself and with the experience of reading. Julie Shaw Lutts’s How to Eat Cake is one of the most memorable. The mixed media sculpture is set like a table for dessert, complete with neatly laid forks, a stack of pretty pink plates under a glass cover and a chocolate cake with pink frosting. Two slices of cake have been plated, ready to be served. Cake’s text comprises just three words, written on three different pieces of cake: “Plate / Fork / Enjoy.” It’s a humorous take on the how-to genre that suggests the virtue of brevity. Perhaps all those extra words we tend to use are merely the icing on the cake.

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Other artists use actual books as the medium for their work. Miriam Schaer’s Hands of Josephus II displays its only readable “text” on two hands cut from the pages of a book. On one hand, the words “War,” “The” and part of the word “Jerusalem” can be read. On the other is an image of one man preparing to stab another, an apparently willing victim. Two bodies lie at their feet. The image—and the hands—appear to be a reference to the “Josephus Problem,” a solution proposed by the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in which a circle of men count off a predetermined number, executing the man on whom the count falls, until only one of them is left. The pages from Schaer’s “altered text” of Josephus: History of the Jews are folded and fanned, confined in their undulating shape by rows of tiny beads sewn together like binding twine. More layered beads outline the shapes of the hands. The effect suggests both elegance—a lady’s beaded gloves, perhaps—and confinement—a bundle wrapped tight. Between these hands is an accordion of history we can’t read.

In Tests for Colour Blindness, Jean Tock turns to the covers of books to create a collage that plays with the notion of being color blind both literally and figuratively. Tock’s covers—in solid shades of blue, red, green, yellow, brown—are arrayed like windows on a field of black. They’re interspersed with dotted pictures hiding the images of numbers, the kind used to diagnose color blindness. The colored covers remind most of us of what we see that others can’t or don’t. The blandest of them, faded gray, comes from an old book titled Tests for Colour-Blindness. Lest you should miss the double meaning, there’s also a 1931 “Drinking Fountain” sign with arrows pointing to “White” and “Colored.”

There are also pieces here that more closely resemble codex books themselves. Burning Me Open by Alicia Bailey has two small covers made of purpleheart wood, with several pages featuring text and images. But the pages are made of clear acrylic and the images of waxed linen thread, like etchings on glass. Copper foil gilds the edge of each page. The text isn’t entirely readable as the book is displayed, but you can peek at parts of it: “There is one who / touches me so it burns…” and “…hands that force me to question how far desire / takes the body before mindfulness leaves it.” Thread drawings of hands, breasts, head, buttocks appear jumbled as you peer through the transparent pages. The resulting wrestling match of bodies and language may indicate love or hate or both. Either way, the act of trying to peek into this erotic little book turns the viewer into a voyeur.

Other visual themes emerge as you walk the two floors of this imaginative exhibition. Text-laden paper spills and springs from books. Pages are folded and shredded and cut into narrow strips to become something new. Artist Gregg Silvis actually knitted an entire wall hanging the size of a lap blanket, titled Great Expectations: loosely knit, using long shreds of pages from the Charles Dickens novel—perhaps an allusion to Madame Defarge, a Dickens character from A Tale of Two Cities, who famously works the names of those to be executed in the French Revolution into her knitting.

Scrolls turn up in many pieces as well, giving a nod to what came before, as if to remind us that the codex itself superseded an earlier reading technology. A strip of black paper runs an endless loop between two scrolls, repeating in chalklike writing the phrase semper tedium—“always a loathsome thing”—in Robbin Ami Silverberg’s Grofaz. The title references a sarcastic initialism German troops used as a nickname for Hitler, translating as “greatest general of all time.” This scroll suggests that, like the age-old punishment of writing phrases on a blackboard, history repeats itself. Meanwhile, Adele Crawford creates a hybrid of the scroll and the codex, piercing tiny pages of text with the rods of scrolls in Spinning Lexicon and English/Japanese.

A sign at the entry to Freed Formats warns: “Normally, we book lovers hold our books. HOWEVER, this book art is not meant to be handled, and some of it is very fragile.” Apparently, it’s an impulse many visitors have had. It’s hard not to touch these pieces, to turn their pages or finger their edges or manipulate their working parts. Like every reading technology that led to it, the codex offers a peculiar tactile experience.

Even as I visit this show to write a review to be displayed on phones and laptops, I’m reminded of how valuable that experience is.

Freed Formats: the book reconsidered
Creative Arts Workshop – 80 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat 9am-4:30pm through July 28
(203) 562-4927
www.creativeartsworkshop.org/…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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