Speaking volumes about their work
A pleasing, puzzling exhibition takes pages out of artists' books
Sumptuously bound in dark brown leather, standing almost 2 feet tall, and weighing in at about 20 pounds, "This Life is No Excuse for the Next," by the German artist and bad-boy prankster Martin Kippenberger , is an awesome tome. Open it up, however, and the old-world gravitas evaporates. Each of its several hundred parchment pages is imprinted with the same text: a brief letter from a Chicago collector thanking an art dealer in Cologne for sending some Kippenberger works. It reads, in part, "I rank [Kippenberger] with two who are in my opinion the best makers of artist books -- Dieter Roth (who is next to God) and Jan Voss ," and it concludes, "I enclose a check for $360, which I believe is the equivalent today of DM550."
Kippenberger's massive volume is, in other words, an expensive joke about the art market and its quasi-religious fetishization of artists and their works. Its irreverent, countercultural spirit is shared by many of the approximately 200 books included in "Artists' Books: Transgression/Excess," an ambitious exhibition at Space Other. The exhibition was co-curated by Space Other director Gamaliel R. Herrera and the Hamburg-based artist Dirk Meinzer .
As the exhibition abundantly demonstrates, artists' books are not like regular books. Conventional books are transparent, in a way: You see through their physical dimension to other, imaginary worlds. With the artist's book, everything you normally ignore when you are reading draws attention to itself -- the cover, the paper, the binding, the printing. With contemporary artists' books, those elements are often treated with willful eccentricity.
Just about every form of book you can imagine is included: stapled zines, seemingly ordinary paperbacks and hardcovers, scrapbooks, boxes containing unbound paintings and drawings, found books more or less inventively altered by artists, folding books, pop-up books, and books that verge on full-blown sculpture. Many famous names are included among the 150 artists represented: Max Ernst , Marcel Duchamp , Marcel Broodthaers , Andy Warhol , Sol LeWitt , Sigmar Polke , and Richard Prince , to name just a few. Collectively, the works in "Transgression/Excess" produce an enthralling pandemonium of forms and contents.
Some books are displayed in closed Plexiglas cases, but most are presented on open shelves, and if you put on white cotton gloves supplied by the gallery, you can peruse them while sitting at desks. If you have a few hours to spare, you will be in for a richly absorbing treasure hunt.
Lots of works you can take in at a glance: a text-less book with half-inch thick pages made of translucent, amber-colored rubber by Michael Dörner , for example, or a telephone book with a conical concavity roughly cut into its front by Antonio Núñez .
Some involve exacting conceptual and formal complexity, as in "Utopia Shaped" by Carla Herrera-Prats . Inside a finely made box are pieces of heavy cardboard with cut-out windows mimicking the shapes of paragraphs. Each is keyed to a series of printed paragraphs about the concept of utopia authored by well-known theorists such as Benjamin Buchloh and Jean Baudrillard . Brainy.
Also philosophical is a set of about a dozen books in different shapes and sizes, all with pure white covers and blank white pages from a library of 6,000 such volumes by Wilfredo Prieto . It's a dryly witty comment on the intellectual and spiritual purity to which Western Enlightenment culture has aspired.
For many artists the book is an arena for free, uncensored experimentation. A collaboration between the painter Christopher Wool and Harmony Korine , who wrote the screenplay for the movie "Kids," is an example. The black-and-white images inside were produced by both artists drawing over photographs by Korine until they turned into illegibly murky abstractions.
Carelessness can be a strategy -- a calculated, slacker-like refusal to conform to expectations of high achievement. See, for example, Tracey Emin's little, cheaply printed booklets containing hand-scrawled poems, which look as if they were made by a clumsy, lovesick teenager. Similarly flouting grown-up standards are the photocopied booklets containing scribbly doodling by Josh Smith , a young artist known for paintings based on the letters of his own name. They look like the works of a high school stoner.
A recurring feeling of puzzlement is part of the pleasure of this show. Why did Stephan Mörsh fill a large photo album with color snapshots of grungy parking lots in Turkey? Maybe he was thinking of photographs of Los Angeles parking lots by Ed Ruscha , the godfather of deadpan photography books. Three of Ruscha's small paperback picture books, devoted respectively to palm trees, cacti, and vinyl records, are also in the show.
Contemporary art is frequently perplexing. It takes us to a psychic place where the usual categories by which we make sense of the world break down, where ordinarily unrelated ideas hook up. Aptly titled, "Transgression/Excess" offers a concentrated dose of that disorienting, often annoying, sometimes exhilarating experience.
Ken Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.