Gathering together artwork made of books, artwork made for books and artist-made books themselves, The Illuminated Library, an eclectic group show at San Francisco State University's Fine Arts Gallery, presents a longstanding relationship between printed matter and visual artists. Beginning with 13th century illuminated manuscripts and ending with drawings made in 2013, the exhibition spans time and media to showcase the many ways artists approach books, whether they serve as inspiration or end product.
The oldest work in the show is positioned closest to the gallery entrance, the automatic prelude to the rest of the more contemporary exhibition. The wall text -- excellent throughout -- is especially intriguing for Selected Gems from Modern Poets, a small ink on vellum book from 1942, illustrated by calligrapher and illuminator Alberto Sargorski. Encouragingly, Sargorski began his true career at age 43, working for his younger brother's bookbinding business Sargorski & Sutcliffe. The example provided is a small taste of the firm's most luxurious output, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which sunk with the Titanic in 1912.
Just to the right of this display, two works by Enrique Chagoya unfold alongside 19th century reproductions of the original Codex Borgia, a Mesoamerican ritual and divinatory manuscript dating from somewhere between the 13th and 15th centuries. On first glance, I thought the entire vitrine was work by Chagoya -- his accordion-fold 2011 lithograph Escape from Fantasylandia: An Illegal Alien's Survival Guide also features a Quetzalcoatl figure in a similar cartoony style. While the pairing was momentarily confusing, the vitrine juxtaposes different levels of appropriation (cultural and critical) to a thought-provoking end.
Tauba Auerbach, [2,3], 2011
The modern books represented in the show don't quite carry the same weight as the Great Omar, but one series manages to capture the wonder of an antique decorative bookbinding. Tauba Auerbach's [2,3] is a series of exquisite pop-up books that open to reveal a single elaborate paper shape within the covers. Four of the six books are represented in The Illuminated Library and each is a colorful puzzle of geometric folds.
Of the other books on view, I was most taken by Brian McMullen and Jason Jägel's Mud Mask & Hang Glider, published in 2012 by McMullens, the childrens' book imprint of McSweeney's. The z-shaped spine, which allows readers to start on either side of the book with one of the two characters, facilitates a unique cyclical reading experience.
Jason Jägel, Looking Right While Facing Left, 2013
Surrounding the exhibition's display copy of Mud Mask & Hang Glider is a large group of Jägel's work -- nearly half the show is the artist's gouache on paper drawings, works on canvas, and three-dimensional paper constructions. Looking Right While Facing Left, the largest of the three-dimensional pieces, juts off the wall in an elaborate conglomeration of collage, gouache, board, reflective mylar and wood. It's also perfectly positioned for a child to get right up and under it, a prime location for all the secret verso details.
Nina Katchadourian, The Castrati in Opera from Special Collections Revisited, 1996/2008
The remainder of the works in the show use books towards other ends. Cara Barer photographs a splayed-out book for Angel Food. Kim Anno dunks a book in water while whispering its contents for the video In the West. Matthew Picton and Brian Dettner deconstruct texts into sculptural objects. Nina Katchadourian's series of sorted books (photographs of book spines arranged into poetic combinations of titles) are a perennial favorite of mine. The conceit is simple, but humorously effective: in one of the four photographs on display The Castrati in Opera sits atop The Story of Organ Music.
Catherine Opie's photograph Jonathan stands out in the exhibition as a quiet and contemplative piece. Within an oval frame, the author Jonathan Franzen sits facing away from the camera, his face partially visible as he intently reads pages 650 and 651 of War and Peace. The only illumination in the scene seems to come from the book itself. His figure is low within the print; a large space of blackness above his head seems reserved for the images conjured by the pages of Tolstoy's masterpiece.
The works in this show belong to that space. Though uneven in terms of polish and representative balance, The Illuminated Library showcases the fruitful dynamic between visual artists and texts, proving this long relationship is not a stagnant or a dated one, but rather a pairing where experimentation thrives and objects of beauty and wonder can still materialize like images from words on a page.
The Illuminated Library is on view at San Francisco State University's Fine Arts Gallery through October 17, 2013. For more information visit art.sfsu.edu.