Now on display in McCabe Library is an exhibition of book art by Robin Price, a seasoned and acclaimed veteran of creative printing and publishing. Price has been on campus recently as a visitor to Visiting Assistant Professor of Studio Art Mary Phelan’s Book Arts class. Price gave a walk through the gallery on March 18 during which she elaborated on her artistic methods and purpose, giving an in-depth look at and explanation of each work.
“Book art” is a misleading label and a kind of ridiculous thing to say out loud. It brings to mind the art on the cover of a book, or maybe the art in a book, but what it refers to is books that are intended as pieces of art — while they may contain poetry or paintings, they aren’t there just to support or present other work. Price’s compositions are varied in their materials, contents, and message, but they share the same form.
The walk began in McCabe’s foyer with Price leafing through two of her earlier pieces. The first was her 1995 print of the biblical Book of Revelations, which combined the original text with accompanying paintings done by the artist. She worked with a colleague who specialized in Central European, specifically Czech, art. The barely visible yet crucial impact of minor decisions in material selection that would later become a focus of the exhibit became apparent as Price revealed that the paper bound in the book was from a Czech paper mill. Other unspoken details of the book’s artistic power included information about its historical moment and context. The subtle depth of each work became clearer as the walk continued.
Take, for example, the following presentation from the show. “43: According to Robin Price” is a work from the artist’s 2003 residency in Kyoto that requires cutting through a remarkable amount of layers to understand. Some of them are actual layers — the book is wrapped in a cover and another cover and some kind of big black box that looks like it’s full of government secrets — but more of them are conceptual. Take, for example, the “content” of the book. It is a series of random quotations pulled from works that are cited in a separate accompanying booklet. The story behind these, Price explains, is that she worked with a mathematician who helped her choose excerpts from the different works that were related to the number 43.
The corny aphorism goes that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” which, in the case of Price’s book art, holds true in a literal sense: there is no way to really make a judgment on what will be in any of the books by observing them closed and behind glass. In order to adequately explain the power of each work, Price opened their cases and covers and leafed through them, explaining the details of every page and letting the small audience feel everything. The works’ tactile features are more important than they seem, yet they are almost impossible to make out from the other side of the glass.
Two of the works she showcased, light volumes of poetry, look like some cross between an edgy independent zine and a children’s book when they are viewed in the trappings of the exhibition. But when they are held and read up close, they can be experienced as really interesting and visceral work. One of them, a collection of Iraqi poems titled “Love in the Time of War,” is printed on silk pages that are so delicately made that they split into two pages given the right touch, revealing a little colored piece of material within that gives each page a unique hue. A book of what Price calls “responses to contemporary literature” features paper that is printed underneath the text in a way that it makes all the words look like they are floating.
Printing, as a contemporary process, brings to mind an image of a computerized vomit — sorry, not my favorite word either — of Penguin classics and horrifically priced textbooks. Price urges her viewers to keep in mind the craft and beauty of the book. Towards the end of the walk, she held up one “copy” of one of her books and had a student hold up another. The two went through the work, page by page, as Price pointed out the little differences in typography and composition. The power of the book sometimes depended on, like a (dare I say) “real” book, just opening it and flipping through the pages.
“They’re really one of a kind,” she said, with the exhausted look on her face of someone who had taken the time to make two almost identical things just to prove to a few old people and three college students that they weren’t exactly the same.