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Paper is the Star at San Jose's Institute of Contemporary Art

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The Edge of Vision (2010) by Mary Ellen Bartley. From the series Standing Open. Pigment prints on rag paper, 18x27". (Photo: Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery)

Starting June 5, San Jose’s Institute of Contemporary Art showcases three different exhibitions exploring paper as art, in all its forms: bent, broken, cut, glued, sewn, painted, photographed, manufactured and quite often used as a construction material.

There are three exhibitions in three different gallery spaces at the institute, each with its own focus.

Mary Ellen Bartley (see above) is the only artist to get an exhibition all to herself. A photographer, Bartley snaps books standing on their ends with their pages separated, essentially creating abstract and dreamy compositions. Bartley was inspired by a 2008 Met retrospective on Giorgio Morandi, the Italian painter and printmaker known for the tonal subtlety of his still lifes.

The 19 artists featured in Next New Paper use paper as their medium. The 28 artists in This is Not a Book: Chapter Two alter books to create something else entirely. All three exhibitions “complement each other so beautifully,” says Cathy Kimball, ICA’s Executive Director and Chief Curator. “They all speak to each other, but they’re very distinct.”

New Punctuation (2013) by Jann Nunn. Hand-cut archival microprint paper, nylon, cast plastic, dimensions variable.
New Punctuation (2013) by Jann Nunn. Hand-cut archival microprint paper, nylon, cast plastic, dimensions variable. (Photo: Courtesy of Jann Nunn)

The art is drawn from all over the world, but one of the most charming sculptures in Next New Paper comes from Jann Nunn of Oakland. She teaches sculpture at Sonoma State University and a librarian there clued her in to a stash of archival microprint paper (similar to microfiche) otherwise headed for a landfill.


Nunn has painstakingly, individually cut the coated paper sheets to construct hanging mobiles. In between each sheet is a little spacer, lending a light-filled, buoyant quality to the forms. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Guest curator Donna Seager was brought in to put together This is Not a Book: Chapter Two. “A lot of these artists are interested in the anatomy of the book,” says ICA Curator Patricia Cariño. Especially for those who consider books sacred objects, the ways in which they are used and abused to create something new can be startling, even shocking, even though the end result is typically beautiful.

Anthologia (2007), by Jacqueline Rush Lee. Reassembled, inkedand folded book, 9x9x6".
Anthologia (2007), by Jacqueline Rush Lee. Reassembled, inked and folded book, 9x9x6″. (Photo: Courtesy of Jim and Kelly Polisson)

Jacqueline Rush Lee is a Hawaii-based sculptor who uses books as raw material to create conceptual art forms. In this case, the book’s pages were repeatedly soaked with ink until they became something else entirely. She then helps the book adopt another form even further removed from its original shape.

As Lee writes on her web site, she completely transforms the book “into an abstract, poetic object with an entirely new narrative.” In a similar vein, other artists in This is Not a Book use books to form everything from pillows to textiles to three-dimensional landscapes. Some of the artists make use of the letters. Others don’t crack open the books, except in a structural fashion.

“In some of these works, the text is pertinent to the work,” Kimball says. With Lee’s work, “not so much.”

This is Not a Book: Chapter Two, Next New Paper and Mary Ellen Bartley: Looking Between the Covers all open June 5th at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. For more information, head here.

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