Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 10, 2011

From the library to the gallery

The humble book is a work of art in Stanford exhibitions

by Rebecca Wallace

Seeing the two current exhibitions of book arts at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center is like paging through the past, present and future.

Upstairs, you can peer through the glass case at hand-colored engravings in an 1843 edition of "A Christmas Carol." Or, learn about science from a 17th-century book that asserts that the Earth was once hollow and filled with water — until Noah's flood.

The volumes are in a show called "Illustrated Title Pages," which traces the evolution of book title pages from 1500 to 1900. Printmaking techniques and typefaces can be seen changing over the centuries. Authors include Aristotle and Chaucer; artists include Goya, Piranesi and Whistler.

Downstairs, the present comes into focus with the large exhibition "The Art of the Book in California: Five Contemporary Presses." On display are books with related prints and photographs, all created by five present-day presses in the Bay Area and Southern California.

The books themselves are works of art, elegant or intimate or avant-garde, many printed on handmade paper. They're bound in metal or linen, or rolled in a scroll, or covered in smoked buffalo rawhide.

Some contain poetry, like Ninja Press' "XXIV Short Love Poems," written by Bruce Whiteman to his wife. The book has an accordion-style binding, with Japanese iridescent cloth on the spine.

A short story by Ursula Le Guin is told from the perspective of an oak tree in Foolscap Press' "Direction of the Road." The book features a woodcut of an oak by artist Aaron Johnson, and text paper made in a linen wrapper — which, according to the exhibit catalog, "sounds like the rustling of leaves as you turn the pages."

Despite the variety and fresh creativity, which feel very contemporary, some viewers might say that this show, too, is a reflection of the past now that digital books are on the rise.

Co-curator Peter Koch doesn't agree. A fine-art printer whose Berkeley press, Peter Koch Printers, is one of those featured at the museum, he says more and more young people are buying his books. They're the bibliophiles of the future, he says.

Koch's press has been operating since 1974. His clients were once chiefly "successful businessmen" who were educated and often knew Greek and Latin, he said at the exhibition opening last week.

"That took a dive in the '80s and '90s," he said, sitting on a bench as the crowd milled around him, peering into the glass cases. "Now I meet people ages 15 to 25." He attributes this to a rising interest in handicrafts and DIY projects among younger people. "It's a way to reconnect with the world," he said. He called the movement a reaction to the digital age, a desire to make things with one's own hands.

Standing nearby, Felicia Rice of Santa Cruz's Moving Parts Press, which is also featured, concurred. She said she loves setting letters by hand. "It gives you a kind of intimacy with the type."

The show, which runs through Aug. 28, also has works by Santa Cruz's Foolscap Press, run by Peggy Gotthold and Lawrence G. Van Velzer; Carolee Campbell's Ninja Press of Sherman Oaks; and Turkey Press of Isla Vista, run by Harry and Sandra Reese. Large black-and-white photos of the artists with their weighty metal presses and equipment stand in the gallery.

The exhibition is a cooperative effort with Stanford University's libraries; all the books are in the special collections. Co-curator Roberto G. Trujillo wrote in the foreword to the exhibit catalog that the libraries have amassed almost complete holdings from the five presses.

"Collecting fine-press editions and contemporary artists' books on an international scale has been, and continues to be, important for Stanford libraries," he wrote.

The central concept in this show is to spotlight "the new book," tipping a hat to innovation as well as fine design and sophisticated typography.

In the past, books that were deemed works of art were usually labeled this way because they contained original prints, Koch wrote in an essay in the exhibit catalog. By the late 1970s, the physical make-up and materials of books were gaining appreciation on their own, seen as "signatures of the artist/printer," he wrote.

Book art has continued to mature. As Koch wrote: "The complexities of craft and knowledge that coexist in the making of a handmade book today encourage collaboration — younger artists, printers and writers are now joined, influenced and informed by conservation bookbinders, artisanal papermakers, type designers, digital-media engineers and contemporary scholarship in the history of the book."

Artistic collaboration is seen in many of the books on display, including "Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol." Letterpress-printed in black and red, the book unfolds to reveal bold collage images by Stanford art professor Enrique Chagoya. The images from Mexico include pop-culture graphics and items from pre-Hispanic times. Felicia Rice of Moving Parts Press has combined the pictures with performance texts and poems on border culture by performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena.

Some books seem made to be picked up, like Turkey Press' "Other Worlds: A Journey to the Moon," written by Cyrano de Bergerac. The book has a soft-looking binding of goatskin and Japanese cloth, and is housed in a cloth-covered box.

Indeed, Koch said at the exhibit opening that it's unusual to see a book under glass when you want to hold it in your hands and turn the pages. "The book doesn't want to be imprisoned," he said, smiling.

Fortunately for hands-on readers, there are copies of all of these books in the Stanford libraries' special collections, Koch said. Visitors can't check them out, but they can look at them in the library.

Upstairs, the vintage works in the "Illustrated Title Pages" show are more fragile, which makes sense considering some are hundreds of years old. Still, they look pretty good under glass.

One of the most striking is a large "Theater of the World," an edition of what is considered to be the first world atlas, created by the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius. Its first edition was published in 1570; the one on exhibit is from 1595, with about 100 engraved maps. Its colors are still bright.

An 1890 "Alice in Wonderland" has fared less well. While Alice still sleeps in a vivid peach-colored dress, the pages have turned a dank yellow. According to an exhibit card, this inexpensive edition was not printed well.

"Its paper darkened because of the acidity of the wood pulp that was used," the card states. "Before about 1820 paper was made from linen and cotton rags, which not being acidic did not discolor."

In this case, it would seem, the past has an appeal.

What: Exhibitions on contemporary book arts and the history of title pages, at the Cantor Arts Center

Where: Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford University

When: The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8. "The Art of the Book in California" runs through Aug. 28, and "Illustrated Title Pages" is up through Oct. 16.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.

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