Reading Between the Lines

MCBA's "Artists' Books" exhibit turns aesthetic concepts into a novel idea

Long before comic-book superheroes and tennis bad boys were getting lactose-smeared for the "Got Milk?" ad campaign, the Canadian conceptual-art trio General Idea was busy creating a series of drinking glasses that featured a blond-haired Aryan boy with dead eyes and a Hitler milk moustache. Made in 1984, General Idea's "Nazi Milk Glass" transformed familiar images into unconventional art forms that were often as disquieting as they were humorous. Along with Nazi glasses and test-pattern TV trays, the group also created a series of AIDS stamps in 1987 (before Reagan even could mutter the word) using Robert Indiana's pop-culture-saturated "Love" logo as its model.

For some, these visual and functional art forms don't necessarily constitute the general notion of a book. Pages and covers cease to exist, and the only thing that binds the works together is meaning and intent. But from mobile-maker/sculptor Alexander Calder's black-ink illustrations in 1931's Fables of Aesop, to Salvador Dali's 1969 book Alice in Wonderland, to contemporary book artists like Julie Chen, the Walker Without Walls' current Minnesota Book Arts exhibit, "Artists' Books: No Reading Required," aims to explore the depth and breadth of a book as a concept. While hardly bookish, the works collected here are a series of multiples that are conceptually bound. (This still doesn't mean that your dusty collection of Looney Tunes glasses is the most conceptual book ever made.)

Of course, of the approximately 200 items displayed, there are works that fit the clear definition of book: Edward Ruscha's documentation of the mundane in Nine Swimming Pools and Some Los Angeles Apartments, and Annette Messager's ironic collection of female torture devices, just to name a few. But because glass casing prevents you from thumbing through the books and interacting with their images, extending the accordion binding, or fingering the strings that run through their delicate pages, the pieces that don't require flipping through pages to experience their content have the strongest impact.

Take, for example, the book-in-a-box series "Blast," a collaborative art project that doubles as an interactive publication. About 10 years before its time, "Blast" was a collection of artists' works and functional pieces that utilized modern technology to inspire a tactile experience. Five issues were published from 1991 through 1996, with a run of about 100 each, three of which are displayed in the gallery. In the interest of preservation, visitors can't interact with these items, either, but the pieces still are compelling as installations.

Blast 4: Bioinformatica is bound in a blue, seed-shaped casing that looks like a Plutonian embryo but is more of a time capsule of contemporary American thought. Inside the split shell, among other pieces, are plastic gloves, a business card for a NYC tattoo parlor, bits of vintage fabric lovingly sewn together and emblazoned with a cross-stitched dog in its center, and a tiny vial of yellow liquid that claims to be brain matter. The vial reads, "Experience Love." As a glib prediction of future Photoshop magic, a photo slide inside has been stamped with "Caution: Fractal technology no longer allows you to identify visually the difference between abstract and real." No kidding.

Along with these collaborative publications, the gallery unveils some of the greatest works in correspondence and mail art, seen as the precursor to today's network of zine makers and e-mail artists. A series of collage works by Detroit-born artist Ray Johnson is featured, though before his suicide, Johnson was an avid anti-artist who refused to show his collages or paintings in galleries.

As the creator of the New York Correspondence School, Johnson was less a Fluxus artist than a Dadaist who created pieces that remained in flux. He sent mail collages to friends and colleagues, often utilizing puns and wordplay and his signature "How to Draw a Bunny" illustration. One of his disparate collage-art mail pieces on display features a mutant rabbit-possum and the words scrawled underneath, "Most splendid rare photograph of seldom seen duck-tailed coals law arrived. Thank you." It's stamped with the words "Fetus Johnson," and an unnerving nursery rhyme about a father hunting for rabbit skin to "wrap my baby bunting in" is glued to its corner.

When Johnson was found floating in Sag Harbor in Long Island with $1,700 in his pocket in 1995, some speculated that his suicide was his last piece of great artwork. Ironically, the godfather of letter art never left a suicide note. But the details of his life and death are still the subject of classrooms and chat rooms, perhaps a testament to Johnson's ability to create art that remained in transition, changing with each sender and receiver and always fostering new ideas. Like the other items on display, his art, like his life, is a book that never ends.

 
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