Hold the Press
An exhibition on books and memory at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts
By Tony Evans
Browsing the book stacks in a great library once caused me to swoon under the sheer magnitude of written possibilities. I suppose it caused fits because I had already been altered forever by a smattering of books, magazine articles and reviews, all of which had helped to form a larger, finer, sensibility than that of my previous existence. Hundreds of languages and literatures in row after row brought me at once to a sense of infinite possibility and to the fact of my own mortality. Ambivalence toward reading begins with not knowing if what is best might be around the next corner, while realizing that our days in the aisles are surely numbered.
Who has the time for the so-called "great books" when Vintage has a new author out and another Harper's Magazine lies unread on the table? I am a sucker for visual artists who appropriate text in their work or in some way objectify "the book" as symbol, rather than reminding me of what I don't already know. Better yet if they stand back far enough to let me feel the subtle rush of my own humanity before the mind-boggling deluge of information that surrounds us.
Three artists on display at the Sun Valley Center's latest exhibition satisfy this need for a distanced view of information and literature without the slightest reference to the digital age. The misapropos title of the SVC show takes nothing away from these compelling artists who manage—-through appropriation, painterly attention, and a library installation—to put the daily news in its place and redefine the significance of books and newspapers in light of the human spirit.
"What We Keep: An Exhibition on Books and Memory" is less about memorabilia than it is about re-imagining the nature of the written word. Like poets and musicians, these three artists have the ability to cut through the never-ending compost heap of the written word like an interdepartmental memorandum from the Creator Himself. Bean counters beware: This show is too cool for school and leaves no room for curmudgeons.
Xiaoze Xie is a Pennsylvania-based Chinese artist who has been painting stacks of folded newspapers for more than a decade. He studied architecture in China and received a master's degree from the Central Academy of Arts and Design before devoting himself to painting. Several large canvases of his convincingly realistic work are on display from "The Vanishing Collection." Brought to the SVC by the Works of Grace Foundation, Xie's paintings are from his own photographs, shot with short focal lengths, leaving only the folded edges of old ledgers and Chinese newspapers in focus against dark and somber backgrounds. The magic of a painter's attention turns this quotidian subject into something numinous. Xie observes newsprint from a point in the history of art when painters took weeks to render the exquisite folds in a noblewoman's dress. Yet his studies in blandness seem to belie the extraordinary power newspapers have over the public imagination. Is he creating a mausoleum for the old media? His blurry paintings of moldering, string-bound Chinese ledgers could serve as memento mori for great civilizations, caught as they are in the process of erosion and neglect.
Viewing Xie's work, I am reminded of a recent quip by the novelist Jim Harrison: "The only news I believe anymore is poetry." Xie's scale of attention on the ubiquitous and ephemeral newspaper underscores Harrison's criticism while paradoxically preserving the stacks like precious artifacts from another age. His earlier work has used text and figurative elements to make political statements about current events. Yet these canvases in the SVC show are moody abstractions, representing textures and silence above narrative.
If poets wrote ransom notes, they might look like the work of Nina Katchadourian. Bookbindings provide her materials. After perusing various libraries and book collections, she stacks a few of the books on end with nary a regard for authorship, genre or typeface, and photographs her resulting Haiku against a black background. Authors‚ names and publishing houses are marginalized at best in these photographs, and the writing contained within these books has been rendered insignificant.
The effect of juxtaposing genres is comical: Romeo and Juliet, They Rose Above It, Co-Dependent No More ... and a bit unsettling when we see a title with personal significance. This happened to me when I recognized a Billy Collins book, "Picnic, Lightning," used as a line in one of her vividly colorful digital photographs. Instead of talking about books or art, I want to be like Nina, casually tossing together literature, guide book and self-help titles like a kid with brightly colored refrigerator magnets angling toward perfection. Rather than getting her jokes, I kept taking the lines as abstracts and reading too much into them, or remembering how Rick Bass once said that story titles are to stories as keys are to locks. In this case, there is nothing to decipher or unlock; nothing required except a sense of humor and a belief in the obvious. Life should be so simple. Katchadorian's recent retrospective, "Opener 11: Nina Katchadorian: All Forms of Attraction" at the Tang Teaching Museum and at Skidmore College was nominated for Best Monographic Exhibition by the Association of International Art Critics.
Miami-based artist, bibliophile and beachcomber Michele Oka Doner's installation at the SVC show comes closest to matching the proposed theme of the show. "The Magnificent and Enchanting Etymology of the Peninsula State (Botany, Geology, History, Poetry and Fiction)" does in fact show "what she keeps;" in this case, a re-creation of her personal library from her home in Florida. An internationally acclaimed designer, Oka Doner has taken a deep interest in her physical and literary surroundings, presumably having read many of the displayed books about Florida, its inhabitants, flora and fauna. A list of hundreds of other titles hang on the facing wall. Oka Doner's affinity for all things Florida extends to the many artifacts she has collected and incorporated from the beaches near her home: nuts, bones, stones, remnants of palm fronds, corals and seaweed. There are also bits of Americana situated here and there and old photographs from travels in the Peninsula State. The many books with intriguing titles lie horizontally and vertically or side by side in a kind of multimedia tableau of the deep knowledge of Florida. The collected objects intermingle with the books and even seem to sprout from them, serving to illustrate and personalize an otherwise academic enterprise. Oka Doner's libraries are shrines to a specific locale. They represent a kind of devotion to place, to its lore, customs and deep history: a devotion and focus as rare in the digital age as a Florida panther.
Which brings us to the elephant missing from the living room of this exhibition—digital information. It is difficult to imagine an artist of Xie's talent and renown focusing on news stacks with such scrupulous attention if not for their endangered status. Similarly, Oka Doner's library installation exists as a kind of museum with books and magazines only a few decades old. Perhaps because of the extraordinarily quick evolution of the Internet and information technology, book collections like hers suddenly have become rarified and nostalgic. While in the midst of her installation, it seems that an entire way of life is leaving the earth; we are losing the physicality of collections, of written words, pages, photographs and illustrations. Thanks to the times we are in and curators of this show, what might have been taken to the second-hand store or sold on eBay last year has become an opportunity for art-making.
Even Katchadourian's droll and dismissive poems made from bookbindings seem like catch phrases for the great transition under way: from the age of the hallowed "book" to a time when information of all sorts will no longer be bound to titles, chapters or even sentences. Her work reminds us that catch-as-catch-can has always been within the purview of the artist and that art will continue to be rambunctious in the face of scholarship. After seeing this show, I get the feeling wherever we are going, we will be traveling lightly.
"What We Keep: An Exhibition of Books and Memory" through September 28 at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts gallery, 191 Fifth St. E. in Ketchum.