"Don't judge a book by its cover," admonished a store sign on Coleman Boulevard in recent weeks. I'd pass by it on my way home, finding it slightly curious for this design and home decor store specializing in swanky "covers" and adornments of various sorts. But hey, it's a worthy reminder and sage advice nonetheless. Only not so much for the artists in the current exhibit, On & Off the Page, at the City Gallery.
This diverse group of 40 artists from across the Southeast — paper makers, illustrators, printmakers, bookbinders, whimsical storytellers of various mediums, and yes, book cover creators — offers clear evidence that one can judge quite a bit by a thoughtfully-crafted book cover. In fact, the elegance and artistry behind the functional object we know as "book"— that ol' timey, non-Kindle, dog-eared entity sitting there stacked by your bedside and gathering dust on your book shelves — deserves a fresh read in its own right. And this engaging exhibit does that beautifully.
According to curators Kristen Solecki, an artist and illustrator, and Kris Westerson, a paper artist and co-founder of the Charleston Book Union, a monthly meet-up of anyone interested in or dabbling in the book-making arts, the exhibit is designed to invite viewers to explore how a book's structure relates to its content in much the same way as a theater stage sets the, well, stage for an actor. The exhibit's protagonist, so to speak, is the interplay between structure and story, container and message; its theme is the ever-evolving love story (or tragedy) between reader and book-as-artifact; and the underlying question: How, exactly, is the medium part of the message?
"There's this intimacy when you're looking at a book or piece of art in this way," says Westerson, white-gloved as she points out the letter-pressed pages and prints of Ellen Knudson's American Breeding Standards, a book the author and artist created from soup-to-nuts — the antithesis of mass-market publishing. Knudson's hand is in every aspect of the book-as-art-object, from brilliant concept (a feminist riff on ideal specimen prototypes for horses compared to women) to design, to imagery, to writing the content and creating photopolymer plates for printing, then hand-binding and crafting of a bookcase, producing only 50 editions each.
"It's a much different experience than scrolling through Facebook," adds Solecki. "Viewers are experiencing and engaging with an artist's story and work in a very personal way."
There are playful wave-like paintings by Lee Wieland resembling the exquisite swirls of antique marbled endpages, juxtaposed on the facing wall with bold woodcuts by Greenville printmaker Kent Ambler. In contrast to Ambler's prints, one of Westerson's pieces, "Exhalations Shimmer II," is a flag book crafted from handmade cotton paper and a process of wet-on-wet pulp painting. "Basically Kris started with nothing, essentially with dust and fiber, and added to it, layer by layer, while Kent is carving away layers from the woodblock," explains Solecki.
These subtleties might not be obvious to the casual viewer, but there's plenty to please the less-informed eye as well. Even if taken at face value — a captivating illustration here, an interesting installment there (Charleston's Kit Loney's tiny book mobile, for instance) — you don't have to read between the lines to enjoy the exhibit as celebration of bookish beauty. To wit, Solecki's bright, strong prints — clever cautionary tales about overdevelopment — stand alone as appealing visual art, even if the viewer doesn't realize the artist is a book illustrator.
Indeed there are several pieces that might seem puzzling at first, but that too is part of On & Off the Page's delight. One initial head-scratcher in particular, Fritzi Huber's "Found Memories: Mary Nixon," turned out to be one of my favorite works, drawing me back to revisit the piece and the show, just as I return to favorite passages in beloved books. Huber (a Wilmington, NC-based former trapeze artist, don't you love it?) presents an ad-hoc narrative of a family's life recreated from found objects — (a baby's crib, garter belts, photographs, Dear John letters) — discovered in an abandoned house. It's haunting, mesmerizing and heartbreaking all at the same time, like any classic tale.
"Books are a uniquely portable magic," wrote Stephen King, and this show gives us a peek underneath the magician's cape. For many the magic is in the story, the world that unfolds as reader enters an alternate reality on the page. Off the page, however, in the artistry that holds, creates, and abracadabra, delivers that magic, there's plenty to explore and uncover, including maybe judging a cover or two.