Book art has begun to be taken seriously as an art form in the Milwaukee community within the last few years. Its appeal as a medium has to do with the different dimensions of presentation that are used in a single book. The content, images and text-blocks in a book are two dimensional; the book itself is three-dimensional, or sculptural; and the books ability to be opened and paged through adds a fourth temporal dimension.
Book art constructs an environment to be entered into by the viewer. It potentially incorporates almost every other medium available to an artist. Today book art in Milwaukee integrates combinations of painting, drawing, printmaking, collage, and found objects, as well as complex sculptural forms. It can also include mixed media, metals, ceramics, film, components of performance art, digital media, and even aspects of animation. Traditional book forms such as hard bound with stitched bindings or linear narrative are combined with non-traditional forms: for example a gown with pages made up of layered skirts to raise and read, or a voodoo prayer book fashioned out of wood, wax, toenails and chicken bones.
Unlike art forms in which the viewer simply views the piece, book art is a more interactive medium: it must be opened and the pages turned to reveal the narrative inside. Most book art must be touched. Without handling the book, integral components of the piece remain lost or hidden to the observer. Book art requires a personal and intimate interaction with the medium. A book artist often uses unusual and highly tactile materials to enhance the message. For example, Carne Heft’s piece, For Boys Who Dream of War, is a scorched triangular wooden box with a silver metal star on top. Set inside the padded base are two items: a polished glass cast of a wounded soldier inscribed with the number of American military dead in Vietnam and a small metal WWII first aid kit containing a wound dressing, sulfa powder and instructions. These two items are covered with a triangular folded American flag, the book lying on top. Using this type of evocative, tactile materiality becomes a large part of book art’s message. The best book art pulls the viewer into an existential experience in which he or she potentially reacts to the book’s materials emotionally and philosophically, not just as a passive reader. A book like For Boys Who Dream of War disorients the viewer and makes him or her question notions ideas of war.
Wisconsin has always been on the cutting edge of book art. A national book arts movement led by Walter Hammady at the University of Wisconsin in Madison gained tremendous momentum in the 1970s. Students started majoring in it as an art discipline at universities such as UW-Madison and the University of Iowa; special institutions such as the Colombia College of Book and Paper Art and the Art Institute, both in Chicago; the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis; and the Center for Book arts in NYC. Museums and university libraries throughout the country such as UCLA and NYU have since amassed impressive collections of books by artists from all over the world.
UW-Milwaukee’s Special Collections, curated by Max Yela, is used and valued by Wisconsin students, faculty, and artists as one of the best and most extensive collections in the country. Amazingly, it is free and open to the public. The collection includes the tiny, exquisite letter-pressed books-within-boxes of Minnesota book artist Jody Williams (see Williams’s Inside/Outside shown in photo). UWM Special collections works closely with Woodland Pattern to bring in book artists from all over the country and world to give lectures and hold workshops. Max Yela also teaches an historical course on the development of book art.
The book works of other Midwestern artists such as Katherine Ng, Susan King, Karen Hamner, Mark Mulhern, Greg Martens, and Jessica Meuninck-Ganger, as well as my own work can be found in such Milwaukee galleries as the Bay View’s Book Arts Gallery, Woodland Pattern, the Riverwest Artists Association Gallery, Redline, and UWM’s Special Collections. Spend some quality time with a book this summer and construct an experience of your own!