Aimee Lee – Peculiar & Commonplace

A lee p c blog b

The word commonplace originates from Greek tópos koinós which means

‘a theme or argument of general application’.

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a widely used method for compiling knowledge, usually by writing information. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of knowledge transcribed into books by one creator, typically following an individual’s particular interests and were significant in early modern Europe. By the seventeenth century commonplacing was formally taught to college students.  In 1706 Enlightenment philosopher John Lock wrote A New Method of Making Commonplace-Books, in which specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category is offered, along with the admonition that such books are not chronological and introspective as journals are, nor are they travelogues. Commonplacing remained standard practice as a popular study technique into the early twentieth century.

During this Age of Information, recording by writing on paper is a diminishing practice; consequently commonplace books can be viewed as charming relics of the past, and serve as fodder for contemporary projects, particularly to those interested in the book form.

Aimee Lee’s Peculiar and Commonplace book, published in 2018 in a limited and variable edition of ten copies is such an example.

A lee p c blog a

Lee’s book is soft-cover, the size approximating that of letter-size paper. Tonally muted, the book spine is of a lighter colored paper that extends onto the cover, structurally mimicking a quarter-bound book and visually mimicking the left-hand column of the loose-leaf paper familiar to those educated in pre-computer environments. That both the title and author’s name present as hand-written provide further clues to the book’s general theme.

The text block consists of a two signatures, nestled side by side and sewn onto a full-width sheet that tucks into and is affixed to the handmade paper cover. The handmade pages are lightweight and fluffy and vary in tone, texture and opacity. The text is a mix of pre-published quotes with attributions and narratives written in both memoir and instructional styles, in both first and third person, from a variety of unattributed sources.

P C 5

Illustrated throughout with both hand-drawing instructional sketches and physical samples from the making of a paper dress, the richness of Peculiar and Commonplace is furthered with the turning of every page.

An introductory page presents a quote by Kazim Ali and another by Barry Lopez that refer to the act of recording our own histories. This is followed by a Table of Contents (which may or may not be a break from the commonplace tradition). This table of contents provides an early clue that the book may well transcend the commonplace genre.

Early on is a tactile, enticing spread, filled with tipped-in samples of materials alongside sketches of the tools needed for the project at hand. This mixing of drawn sketches, with materials and digitally set text continues throughout the book, the pairings of quote with insert not always obvious or easy to digest.

In the copy I have at hand (#4) a page from Chapter III, Section F: Despair has quotes referencing emotional pain, including a snippet from a Marine corp fighter pilot, with a tip-in of paper-tape stitched to a lighter weight sheet, in khaki and green tones, the shape resembling a draped flag (a flag of surrender?). Another page with quotes referencing how we live with others is accompanied by a three segment panel, each panel a different color, nearly balanced, but not quite.

P C 6

Then comes the spread with a completed paper dress accompanied by a very specific instruction:

Take everything you’ve learned, seen, gathered, watched, abandoned, caused, adored, cultivated and trashed. Handle everything repeatedly. Rearrange. Let the table be knocked over and the wind to blow as it pleases.
Then start again.

The final page includes a text from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street:

You must remember to come back. For the the ones who cannot leave as easily as you.”

This quote is accompanied by a sketch of a spiral bound notebook, the left side blank, the right side lined. It is unclear whether the lines represent writing, or the pre-printed lines often found in spiral-bound notebooks.

From the colophon I learn that the all of the text block’s papers were handmade by Lee from mulberry from various countries; the cover paper made by Jang Seong-woo in Gapyeong, Korea.

This all results in a remarkable book that uses both multiple production methods and hand-work brilliantly. I am pleased to read that Aimee Lee agrees. On her blog post is the following statement:

This is the first time, maybe ever, that I’ve felt 100% great about a book that I’ve made. It’s because I have the right tools (experience, technical skills, confidence) in the right combination.

P C 4

Continue Reading

Woody Leslie – Understanding Molecular Typography

Understanding Molecular Typography appears to be a textbook, authored by H.F. Henderson and published in 1992. In fact, Understanding Molecular Typography is an elaborate work of non-­narrative fiction created by Woody Leslie. The line between fiction and reality is blurry from the start. The book opens with a fictional title page that is also a true colophon. The book’s publisher is listed as Leslie’s own imprint, One Page Productions, and the title page accurately states that the book was printed at the Center for Book and Paper & Print Arts. However, the ISBN number and information regarding bulk purchases are fiction (sort of, the phone number listed is Leslie’s cell). Blurry, indeed.

The book’s appearance helps sell the deception. Offset printed, case­bound and covered in a standard dark blue book cloth with gold foil text, it appears to be a specialized text for a limited audience. Even its smallest details like the blue and white headbands and goldenrod endsheets help the book look more like an academic or trade publication than an artists’ book. At a comfortable 4 x 6 inches, it is presented as a primer for the lay reader rather than an exhaustive academic textbook ­ a premise which allows Leslie to cover a lot of content and to do so in a humorous way.

Before digging into the book as an artists’ book, it is helpful to summarize the content of the ostensible textbook. Understanding Molecular Typography is an introduction to the chemical structures of type, which determine the formation of letters and words. The book focuses on scholarship from the 1950s­1990s and attempts to synthesize more academic writings for the average reader. It explains how positive and negative charges bind basic units into letterforms, and anomalies like serifs and variance from typeface to typeface are discussed. What follows is an extensive set of illustrations paired with written explanations of each letter’s chemical structure, using a notation system outlined earlier in the book. Henderson’s conclusion situates the field within a broader context, discussing the ecological, economic and many other implications of Molecular Typography.

Just as the book’s structure is a conventional codex, the structure of the text itself is that of a standard non­fiction book. There are a table of contents, preface, and introductory remarks followed by various charts and diagrams, a conclusion, glossary, and bibliography for further reading. In form and content, Understanding Molecular Typography subverts the authority of scientistic writing through absurdity and humor, which are related and reinforce one another, but operate differently throughout the book. Absurdity abounds in both content and presentation, from the taxonomy of letter anatomy (‘typtoms’ like ‘itoms’ and ‘vtoms’) to the profusion of cross referenced figures and phonetic pronunciation guides. The specialized jargon and seriousness of presentation will be comically familiar to readers from their own studies in typography, chemistry, or some other discipline.

In other places, a more direct humor erodes the book’s scientistic pretensions. In his author bio, H.F. Henderson is credited for his book, English is Easy, and So’s Your Mom. Rather than a dead give away though, this title also references the silly, often pun­-based names academics rely on to get their writing published. The bibliography also sports titles like “Stay Positive: The Ramifications of Charged Language.” Another source of humor are the intellectual acrobatics used to explain certain characteristics of type. The scientistic authoritativeness of Henderson’s explanations in combination with their utter incompatibility with the reality of type design is especially entertaining to the reader who is versed in the history of type or writing systems. Like a creation myth, these explanations have a naive charm and an admirable internal logic in and of themselves, but are made more enjoyable by their relation to type design, linguistics, chemistry, and other actual disciplines. The following passage epitomizes this humor and bridges the gap to a discussion of the philosophical inquiries behind the book.

“Also note that the segregation of ‘serif’ and ‘sans serif’ isotopes is a human intervention, essentially a curation of selected bonding types, albeit unconsciously on a chemical level, based on aesthetic choices. Uncurated by the design conscious minds of humans, typtoms would likely bind [willy­nilly]. The effect of human language on typtoms is a long, complicated history, one we were largely ignorant of until the 1960s (consult Anderson, 1988 and Norbert 1974).”

It would be enough if Understanding Molecular Typography simply co­opted scientific publishing and warned us not to uncritically accept authority, but by focusing on typography, the book also engages some of the most interesting problems of language. Like many artists’ books, the problems posed might be familiar to readers of Wittgenstein, Chomsky or Derrida. It should be clear from the descriptions above that the book is nevertheless not only accessible, but enjoyable. These implications are never didactic. Even when the fictional Henderson raises such quandaries directly, they are always one step removed from the real questions that Leslie poses for the reader.

If a word’s meaning changes depending on the word that follows, does a word mean anything on its own? Are there ideas that cannot be expressed through words? If we understand the world only through language, are there limits to our understanding? Can we ever know precisely what someone means when they speak or write? Understanding Molecular Typography is not just for book artists, letterpress printers or designers, though those of us who are will no doubt find it especially enjoyable. It is humorous and thought­provoking on many levels, and takes itself only as seriously as it needs to. One can only hope Leslie eventually produces the many books and articles listed in the bibliography.

Continue Reading

Sarah Hulsey – The Space of Poetics

The Space of Poetics by Sarah Hulsey

Circuits are pathways, connectors, and occasionally maps. In Sarah Hulsey’s The Space of Poetics, they function as conduits to convey memory. Hulsey constructs a dialogue with architectural theory, specifically Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, visually complicating his exploration on how solitude can provoke moments of creativity and thought.

The viewer is first presented with Hulsey’s clean, minimal design that expresses her themes. Laid out in a traditional book format, the outer cover is a series of muted grays and blacks. Inside, she alternates between text (always on the left) and mylar and woodcut print (always on the right). The writing is a brief excerpt from Bachelard’s influential work, broken into pieces with numbers advancing upwards underneath each word; the total count of this snippet of text is 101 words. For the right side, the woodcut is an unchanging blueprint of an architectural space, taken from one of the Sanborn Map Company’s Insurance Maps of Philadelphia from 1916. The shapes denote rooms that are closed in and unconnected. The woodcut uses dark blue-green ink, and while it possesses color, it is still quite restrained. Overlaid on these woodcut prints are single transparent mylar sheets with circuitry diagrams printed on every page, shifting with each succeeding piece. They pictorially organize the numbers from the opposing page by depicting solid and dashed lines showing how the “energy” flows through the spaces. The numbers almost always correspond with solid lines and flow to others. Hulsey’s one exception is 61, which signifies the word “henceforth” in the text piece. That number’s placement is utterly disconnected from the circuit diagrams—perhaps because, as a piece of language, its function seems superfluous to the rest of the spare yet evocative language of this passage.

These outlined circuit changes communicate how language works; in a way, Hulsey’s technique could reference and resurrect sentence diagramming. This bygone art was a method of understanding language to see how each word works within a particular piece of writing. By suggesting these relationships through electricity, Hulsey is able to break Bachelard’s writing from simply grammar and prose to liken it to charged movement. After all, electrical impulses appear as energy in powering our homes and brains. Regarding her circuit design, they are a mix between solid and dashed cables lines; the solid lines could represent a main connection, while the dashed could be an alternate one. There are also junctions (cables connectors) that are mostly black and white circles, except for some pages that show yellow and red dots. Certain junctions remain from one page to the next, perhaps hinting at how, as we progress through the text and through solitude, creativity erupts from some areas, disappears, and reappears growing in other directions. Hulsey uses the visual language of electricity to hint at other forms of currents, such as neural synapses, which leads to memory. In The Space of Poetics, the currents are a map of neural movement.

Examining the Bachelard quote, the text is brief but significant; he discusses how some spaces of isolation allow for flashes of inspiration. The lack of change of the architectural map over the course of the book emphasizes the electrical mapping transformations, indicating a development of creativity in these spaces of solitude. Removed from distraction and human connections, this moment of being alone gives an opportunity for a person to think beyond the everyday. Rather than be distressed by loneliness, our brains bring charges of inspiration in these quiet places. Even after we have left, this experience clings to us, a means of transporting this insight beyond the walls of our reflective place. Bachelard ends this observation with an acknowledgment that even if there is a loss of this space of seclusion, the memories will linger and keep its meaning alive, though only in our minds.

Hulsey’s elaboration on Bachelard feels collaborative as she represents this source material and relates it, visually, to her own art-making and experience. She explores language through various means and discerns how to grapple with solitude and translate that subsequent inspiration. The diagrams and blueprints of a generic place are all languages of their own, however mysterious or just beyond precise understanding. She deftly ties the relationship of memory to these other languages, prompting the viewer to also reflect on their own moments of quiet and possible intersections with these spaces being fertile for creative growth. Hulsey’s careful designs reinforce this feeling of seclusion and peace. While these empty spaces may seem lonely, their lack of stimuli leaves us to our imaginations, lighting up like circuits into brain pathways that will lead to something more in the future. Through enlarging her source material’s world by mapping and dissecting the language, she has created a work that spans science, theory, memory, and especially art.

Continue Reading

Woody Leslie – Parsely

“I should have known that caterpillars are not sated easily—in my pre-Skittles Phase, Eric Carle taught me that caterpillars are very hungry.” 

From this footnote on page twenty-eight of Woody Leslie’s Parsely, one could guess the book is about words, storytelling, memory…and caterpillars. Specifically, it chronicles how the artist became transfixed by these creatures as they ravaged a plant he was supposed to be tending for his neighbors, who were out of town. This simple story is fraught with anxiety. The narrator struggles with his conflicting impulses and the plant interjects to voice its fear and indignation. Together they give their account like a bickering couple. All the while the caterpillars munch away onomatopoetically.

Parsely is driven by the written word, which accounts for its visual content as well as the narrative text(s). Its creative use of footnotes, page numbers and other features of book design epitomize the field of ergodic literature. Named for the Greek for ‘work’ and ‘path’, ergodic literature requires nonpassive effort from the reader. Extra effort may not sound like something one wants from a book, but Parsely draws the reader in with a humorous and relatable narrative. Leslie delivers this anecdote with such great intimacy and interiority, one could almost miss the book’s success as a veritable treatise on books and linguistics.

Parsely’s physical structure is a simple codex, a double-pamphlet binding in a paper cover, but its format enables the complex play of the text’s various elements. The main narrative, told in past tense from Leslie’s perspective, is set relatively large on the book’s rectos. Disrupting this space are interjections from the perspective of the parsley, which distort the temporal space of the book. The banter between Leslie and the parsley brings the book into the present. The sense of presentness is heightened by the chains of word associations that spontaneously grow from the main text as the storyline progresses. What begin as a few words branching off the story eventually form an intricate web of shared ideas and surprising connections.

Across the gutter, the versos remain more rigid. A vocabulary section of real and invented words is positioned above a section of footnotes, which expands to accommodate new threads in the increasingly meandering narrative. As text expands wildly and takes over the space of the recto pages, these other elements of the book evolve more slowly. Leslie seems to outline a hierarchy, wherein certain aspects of book design or different kinds of content hold out longer against the linguistic entropy. Whereas the narrative, rooted in the subjectivity of memory and dialogue, begins to splinter immediately, elements like the repeated header ‘Vocabulary’ change slowly and subtly.

The format shines through in part because of the book’s restrained design. The color palette is limited. A pleasant bright green fills oversized quotation marks, which act almost like cartoon word bubbles to organize the dialogue on the page. A single red ‘W’ identifies the narrator, and the rest of the text is black. The typefaces are legible and understated. The primary narrative is set in Perpetua, which engages classic book typography and feels somehow leaf-like with its distinctive cut terminals. The many smaller words deviating from this text are set in Gill Sans, a suitable choice for such small sizes and a good pair with Perpetua, also designed by Eric Gill. Parsely appears less designed than it is. The vocabulary and footnote sections have the neutrality we attribute to authorities like the dictionary, as though such things aren’t designed or could not appear differently. On the other end of the spectrum, and the web of tangents and word associations appear wholly organic, spreading like a fungus or raindrops finding their way downhill. Between these extremes, Leslie’s use of quotation marks is a bold exception. The face and color of these marks do help indicate who is speaking and in what order, but they are also an expressive celebration of typographic form, rotating and overlapping to create odd yet familiar new shapes.

Parsely demonstrates the powerful influence the book form can exert on the pacing of a narrative. It’s codex form and restrained cover design do not betray the variety within its pages. At the narrative’s climax, a page could take easily five or ten times longer to read than an earlier page. Combined with the text’s uneven entropy, the unusual pacing makes the reader keenly aware of time passing, which heightens the drama of the caterpillars and parsley. The unpredictable leaps from one page to the next create an uneasy sense for readers who are used to the experience of finishing a novel, thumbing through the final pages and wondering whether there is still time for a happy resolution. Parsely plays with this tension between the clearly finite codex form and the difficulty of predicting exactly how and when the plot will resolve.

The uncertainty of the resolution is strongest when the book guides the reader backwards by recycling a footnote in a new context. These footnotes are the exception, but they show that the book could continue even once the plot is finished, rendering useless that familiar feedback of pages counting down in one’s right hand. The footnotes are arguably the most poetic aspect of the book, rarely linking an idea with the most obvious word, but instead taking the reader on a circuitous path through the narrator’s memories and associations. This movement among ideas, from one word to another, is the heart of the book. Sometimes the link is clear—a pun, a near rhyme, a common phrase—but elsewhere the reader follows a train of thought entirely contingent upon the artist’s own history.

These idiosyncrasies, which make sense given the personal style of narration, expand exponentially when they stray further from the original plot. For instance, when the footnotes spawn more footnotes, decoupled from the main narrative, but integral to the work’s meaning. Parsley reveals that the book is a generative form, not merely a container for text. Even the page numbers interject to support or otherwise engage the text, and give the reader insight into the narrator’s world.

This glimpse into Leslie’s mind feels authentic. As narrator, he alludes to an early interest in etymology, and it is easy to believe given the book’s particular brand of etymological humor. There is also an obsessive quality that seems hard to fake. Beyond the sheer quantity of words (and there are a lot), the connections between them would only be made by someone who views language as terrain for play. The reader may get in on the joke, but with the sense that it was a joke for the artist, and would happily have been made were there no other readers. Yet, the artist did decide to share the book, and the muchness is balanced with careful editing. There are many words, but none are superfluous. This meticulous attention paid to harnessing the book’s text paradoxically lends further authenticity to its celebration of language.

Parsely is philology in the literal meaning: a love of words. There is no single theory of linguistics being promoted, and there is nothing didactic about the book. The narrative is not just an excuse to make a book about language. If anything, the book seems envious of orality, marveling that dialogue seems so direct and effective, but is so slippery and tenuous. The linguistic investigations are practiced rather than theorized. They focus on the way language is actually used rather than the precise meanings of words.

Leslie doesn’t discuss whether neologism is really the feature that separates human language from animal communication, he simply coins new words that the reader will no doubt understand. Likewise, he demonstrates how the small shift from bat to cat to rat, etc. conveys a whole new concept in the reader’s mind without a discussion of “rigid designators” or other philosophical baggage. A psychoanalytic angle emerges organically among the word associations and parallel trains of thought when, for example, a particular digression reveals the narrator’s inner conflict over the caterpillars.

These explorations will be of interest to many readers, but the book’s focus on dialogue and everyday language is what stands out. Like good observational comedy, Parsely points out little inconsistencies that speak volumes about social interactions. Euphemisms are a great way to shirk responsibility. Space is understood, seemingly, in spite of prepositions rather than because of them. Communication in general seems so sloppy that social norms dictate one must not hold another to too great a standard of accuracy. A couple is rarely just two, a week is not always seven days, and most people would not insist on either of these points. In Parsely, language is revealed in all its strangeness, and it is left to the reader to wonder why it is the way it is. One message is clear, though: the artists’ book is a potent and enjoyable form for reading and writing narratives.

Continue Reading

Jaime Lynn Shafer – Old Geiger Grade

It’s hard to say whether Old Geiger Grade, created by Jaime Lynn Shafer at Black Rock Press, is primarily sculptural or narrative. The letterpress-printed book is a straightforward codex, but its drum-leaf binding cleverly accommodates pages which have been excavated and built up to form a dimensional topographic map. It is among these geological features that the printed narrative resides, tracing a journey along the titular road – a stagecoach route to the famed Comstock Lode in Virginia City, (present day) Nevada. The project was created for the Black Rock Press Redfield Fellowship, which aims to link the press with other institutions at the University of Nevada, in this case the W.M. Keck Earth Science & Mineral Engineering Museum. As the colophon explains, parts of the Old Geiger Grade have morphed into modern roads and can still be traveled, part of the enduring legacy of mining in Nevada.

This historical emphasis is only a springboard; Old Geiger Grade is more contemplative than educational. To set the scene, Shafer leads the reader into the 1860s Wild West through the book’s outer elements. Upon extracting the book from its slipcase, the reader finds it folded into a paper wrap. Printed on the wrap’s inside front is a list of “Stagecoach Rules”. Presented without comment, the rules could be taken directly from some historical document, but they have a quaint charm that feels almost too good to be true. Regardless, the rules form an imposing block of text on the front flap, physically barring the reader from entry into the book. From the ominous prohibition against discussing “stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings” to lighter guidelines about gentlemanly behavior, the rules raise the stakes for the narrative inside. The reader is introduced to the Nineteenth Century with all of its implications for race and gender, not to mention a looming specter of danger.

The descriptive narrative within the book is subtle, especially in contrast to the list of rules. Two categories of text share the page: an account of nine stagecoach passengers, and some names of places along their route. The narrator and other passengers are left mostly to the reader’s imagination, a task which is aided by the characters (gentlemen, ladies, outlaws, and so forth) outlined in the preceding rules. The stagecoach is a liminal space, better suited to reflection than a conventional story arc. The reader never learns whether the travelers arrive to Virginia City and strike it rich, but instead shares in the hardships of the road and measures time as much through the rhythms and pains of the body as through their progress across the map (which fittingly provides no compass or legend).

The story’s understated style helps highlight the book’s most striking feature – the topographic layers, some hand-cut from the pages, and others built up with laser-cut shapes of paper. The choice of Rives BFK paper not only has an evocative desert color, but also an almost sandy texture and enough dimension to maximize the effect of the topography. The doubled sheets of the drum-leaf binding feel almost like a board book, but more sophisticated thanks to the printmaking paper (and, of course, the concept and content). Not all of the topographic elevations are rendered sculpturally; some are printed in a gold with enough impression to qualify as dimensional in their own right. These printed lines form a cohesive visual vocabulary with the edges and shadows of the cut paper pieces, and also integrate these landscape elements with the road itself, which is printed in a darker golden brown. This small color change is all that distinguishes the route from the land it traverses.

The marks that are built in relief, rather than printed, are planned carefully to activate the book temporally and spatially. The cut away elements allow the reader to glimpse the future and past, in turn. On the recto, the negative space reveals some future part of the trail. This preview is narrowly framed, adding to the sense of suspense.

“Our shotgun stands guard… without him, our lives would be in grave danger”.

Will the turn of the page reveal danger or some other surprise? Once a page is turned, the same space, now on the verso, sustains an earlier thread of the story, recontextualized. For instance, a description of the cramped conditions and hard wooden benches persists through three turns of the page, stretching out the narrator’s discomfort for the reader to experience. Like this temporal play, the negative and positive relief enacts in space the textual descriptions of the desert landscape. Read in scale to the printed map, a few millimeters on the page represent the “treacherous and frightening” terrain in a direct, tactile way. The extra attention these pages require from the reader seems to be its own form of navigation along a demanding road, though admittedly lower risk.

All of this succeeds because of the remarkable planning and craftsmanship that went into production. Where two layers of page are built up to form a cliff, a perfectly placed two-page hole is aligned to fit together just so, but with organic shapes and fluid placement, these relationships never feel forced. Though the reader knows that each additive form must be met with an equal subtractive counterpart for the book to close, the novelty of this sculptural mark-making never wears out. The minimalism of the blank paper, with its subtle cast shadows and delicate scorching from the laser cutter is beautiful in a way that complements, but also transcends, the book’s narrative and setting.

This beauty, freed from the utility of a proper map or atlas, is akin to highway driving through the Southwest; history is visible, tangible, in the layers of sedimentary rock, but open more to imagination than interpretation. Silver mining is a similar act of time travel. As people traverse mountains, or dig for silver, their struggles play out against the immense backdrop of geological time. The uncertain fate of the characters, now deceased for generations, against this indifferent landscape which remains today gives Old Geiger Grade a sublime edge that resonates beneath its beauty.

Continue Reading

Cody Geiselman – Endless, Ceaseless

Endless, Ceaseless is a yearning for something that was never really possessed, in this case artist Cody Gieselman’s family home and land. Prior rights by a coal company, whether they were sold or taken through eminent domain is unclear, has created this uneasy situation. Through the use of memory, as well as analogies with family photographs and art history, the reader realizes this poignant and impenetrable distance between connection and separation.

The small book is made of paper, hand-stitched binding, and stone colored pages and outer cover, with flecks of texture from the paper itself. These features lend to the overarching themes within the book itself, specifically referencing nature and the natural. When the reader opens the front cover, they find what appears to be soot (or possibly coal smears) on the edges. It is easy to read this part of the cover as burnt, although its identity becomes apparent as one progresses through the book. On the outside of the cover are little spots printed in a blocky, monochromatic manner; the reader will soon realize is a depiction of coal. The pages have a lined tooth, and the book alternates pages mostly with blocky, printed images that are small, with monochromatic/toned ink that merely darkens the stone paper except in certain cases, and letterpress text on the opposing pages.

Gieselman sets the scene with a block reproduction of a painting of Pan and text about panic. The first line, “(Panic and the loss of the wild),” tells us the state of mind and impending grief the author will explore. Using metaphor with the death of Pan, there is an attempt to rationalize what is to come as clearing the old for the new, though it seems like cold comfort. The reader is introduced to the artist’s family via a  mildly distorted family photograph on the ensuing pages. It is mostly unremarkable, a simple group portrait typical of the era, with a patterned frame around the image that could date it from between the 1930s to perhaps no later than the 1960s. We are informed on the opposite page that her family had lived in the house she grew up in for multiple generations. Before we can contemplate the strength of that bond, Gieselman recounts her family receiving a letter about “active operation status,” which results in their departure that summer. The matter-of-factness belies what has clearly been a trauma, and this will continue to unfold throughout the book.

Next, the artist describes the wildlife and nature of the surrounding land; we are meant to feel this loss the more we understand what it was and what it represented. It is now we learn who sent this active status letter—a coal company. Gieselman rues the irony of this entity bringing “life” with jobs but immediately follows with the destruction inherent to coal mining to the earth: “Later remain the desolate abandoned sites, rocky with pits full of water, opaque and green as jade.” The illustrations opposite these pages underscore this unnatural transformation, showing an image of the land, then a close-up of a honeycomb, followed by the honeycomb-like structure of strands of chemical bonds of coal.

The succeeding pairs of pages turn the focus to the personal even more so. Black silhouettes of circling predatory birds appear on the left, and the opposing text notes “So common we would hardly notice. First the sound, then the ground shaking. Cracked windows, crumbled chimney.” Here, we see the changes slowly effected on the house, which is the same as the earth itself. However, because we know of her family’s history with the home and our own emotional ties to family homes, the reader feels this kind of death as sharply. Throughout the book, the artist jumps back and forth in time: before, during, and after the coal company has destroyed this ancestral place. The following sets of pages bring the apparatus of change, the shovel machinery. It is “as imposing as a city” to her youthful eyes, and Gieselman places an illustration of it digging into the darker ground to let us know that it is the coal it is excavating. The opposing page’s text underlines dramatically, as only a child can, what this means: “Buzzards circling while I lie on the ground very still, trying to convince them I’m dead to lure them closer.” The arrival of the coal company is the death of innocence and childhood wrapped together tightly.

It is here that we are informed that even before Gieselman’s birth, her family knew the house’s fate and chose to move in anyways. This quiet revelation is followed on the next page with the first non-monochromatic color scheme. We see a coyote in an ochre-red looking upwards, howling while spewing little bits of coal from its mouth. This stream starts small and grows into a large portion of the page, and for the first time, it intrudes into the text page on the other side.

Gieselman here links her family’s displacement to that of Native Americans that had been driven away before her family’s arrival. This mention perhaps hints at how governments, companies, and other entities are prioritized before the land and the people who live on it. The coal flecks continue on the next page, mimicking the cover. We have come to the penultimate page with Gieselman’s attempt to return to her home at an unspecified time in adulthood, long after her family has left and the coal company stripped the area. There is a particularly melancholy as she notes “but all my familiar indicators were gone.” Musing that perhaps someday far into the future, the landscape will reappear, the audience understands the gravity and long-term effects these companies and our energy choices make on the land.

The coal dots thin on the final page set, and Gieselman ends with a poetic coda that begins with listening to coyotes howl until their sudden silence. She ties this to her own connection with a place that was “always tenuous and fleeting;” she is filled with nostalgia for something she only slightly had and now is vanished. We as the reader cannot help but share her sorrow at this severed connection and the distress at what has been wrought on the earth. A cautionary tale of humans wrecking havoc on the earth and an elegiac monument to her family home, Endless, Ceaseless leaves us with much to consider as we persist down a path of devastation for our energy needs.

Continue Reading

Michelle Ray – The Cave Protection Act of 2013

Most of us concentrate on that we can see, that which is there. Our eyes focus on the positive space first and foremost, rarely the negative. It seems the only time we consider absence solely is when one feels particularly existential, or perhaps because it is the lynchpin to a campy movie (air rights, Burlesque). Michelle Ray reckons with the void in The Cave Protection Act of 2013 and attends to the negative space. Inspired by the destruction of a mining town swallowed by sinkholes, she uses contradiction, sardonic humor, and repeated imagery to understand the seemingly irrational idea of guarding nothingness.

The outer case of the book introduces what will be a recurrent design motif: a basic contour drawing of a house of varying sizes, repeated and stacked. The way they are organized almost seems as if the largest house’s “head” is full of these mini versions of itself. Another reappearing treatment presented here is how these houses are laser cut into the plain board; one has to tilt the case in order to see the subtle lines, which also occurs on some of the book’s pages as well. Upon opening, we find an orange case (another protective layer) with the title written on top. Inside this is our main booklet, which has tabs and can partially unfold accordion-style. Side one is clearly shown because the words “Section 1” are visible, while the other side has “Section 4,” and the viewer must flip over to get to the second half of the booklet. It is bound with thread, the pages an unbleached beige tone with light green margin line, a nod to notebooks or even old penmanship pages.

Opening the first tab, we find the words “In order to dig for diamonds, you have to strip away the earth.” This prologue evocatively tells us we are dealing with the aftermath of mining, a violent scarring of nature. As the reader turns each tab, the text or designs switch from vertical to horizontal, a disorienting tactic that adds to the unsettling contents within. The second real tab is Section 1; it has purposefully obtuse, conflicting legal definitions of what a cave is, along with more informal language (“hiding space for weapons, unsent love letters; gloryhole”). Additionally, there is text that discusses erasure in nature with the suggestive and conceptually dense line, “Forgetting is the same as having known but not knowing.” While this book is supposed to be about a cave protection act, these interspersed lines indicate what the subject really is: the seductive qualities of voids and emptiness. The stark houses pepper the pages again, this time outlined in orange; their hollowness emphasizes our immersion in absence.

Flipping to the following tab, the reader knows what is next to read because the text’s orientation is similar to the preceding flap. In contrast, the opposite page switches positioning, forcing the viewer to move the booklet to resume. In the first page, the definitions continue with “commercial caves” (inhabited by people and therefore unnatural) and “wild caves.” The audience is then given an analogy that is deliberately confusing and incongruous: “There: that:: not her home.” Who is she? Why is she gendered? This is not the last time a person mentioned is described as female; perhaps it is a reference to how spaces are gendered, like homes (domestic) and caves (nature).

Now that the definitions have been dispatched with, one turns the booklet to arrive at what has merely been insinuated—how the caves came to be. Sinkholes materialized in Centralia, Pennsylvania, due to mine fires deep below. As if to stress this manmade disaster, there is a geometric line drawing of a sinkhole next to one of the houses.

Each section contends with different aspects of these unnaturally created cavities. In Section 2, we get liability, along with faint green text that states, “The cave should pose a question rather than an answer.” Like many successful artworks, this book recognizes that art is a problem, not a solution, finding a like-minded subject in the inherent paradox of protecting absence. This text forces the reader to consider what sorts of issues arise from emptiness, such as how do we value something we cannot see? Moving forward, Section 3 deals with illegal acts in caves, along with a cut-out hole on the page; this is the midpoint in the book, indicating it must be turned over and begun from the other side. But first, the viewer reads words inside this paper pit; it is expressive and recounts slipping into the ground. The open wound in the book is perfectly placed as if the text had fallen into a constructed hole.

The opposite side of the fold brings the audience to the second half of the book, which unlike the first, goes from largest tab to smallest. The geometric spirals have returned, along with an elaboration of being trapped in the ground. The reader also discovers this poignant sentence: “The observant Jew buries her book once it has come to the end of its useful life because the past speaks a foreign language.” Absences and memory are intertwined: in this instance, the memory of a town that disappeared with only voids lingering as evidence. This is a poetic way to consider how memory can be fragmented and lack whole sections, requiring attempts to piece together or fill in what happened.

In further sections, Ray resumes mixing legalese with stream of consciousness (“No dumping of the dead.” with “Turn down your music. I’m trying to sleep.”), and this form of communication feels both psychological and dreamlike. The “sleep” mentioned here is another nod at memory, indicated with green writing underneath calling for “contemplation” in the cave. We must thoughtfully consider the past in the hopes of lessening the void, physically and philosophically.

Overall, the back-and-forth of obfuscation and disagreement are as much of the design of the book as are the reiterated imagery of homes devoured and frantically repeated. These inconsistent ideas speak to the absurd subject of the book, and Ray ends her piece with burned spirals and lines, shooting out from the holes in the paper. With this, we see something comes from nothing, a final, fitting contradiction.

Continue Reading

Sue Carrie Drummond – Vestige

Vestige by Sue Carrie Drummond is an offset printed bound concertina that examines the artist’s relationship to clothing she has kept for sentimental reasons. The book is printed monochrome in a rich, warm brown. The darkest browns are in the sizable negative spaces, while text and imagery are knocked out to varying degrees of lightness. On warm off-white paper, even the brightest elements feel soft and delicate. The limited palette and minimalistic images make Vestige cohesive and immersive.

Vestige is driven by its text; lyrical prose written in first person. Via worn out articles of clothing, the narrative covers the writer’s relationship with her father, mother, friends and lovers. The book culminates with one romantic relationship, but the earlier ones help introduce the narrator and provide the context for that relationship. The narrator’s relationship with her parents seems to foreshadow and impact her romantic life, but is interesting and relatable in its own right. More than any specific relationship, Vestige is about the narrator’s way of relating to her own past and the people who shaped it.

Text and image are sparse. Meaning is found in subtlety: pacing, composition and juxtaposition of text and image. Passages employ metonymy and double entendre to slow down the reader, complicate the narrative, and reconcile the book’s lyrical delicacy with its charged confessional content.

One such page reads,

“We drifted for miles / while I adapted to their fit, / breaking them in.”

Pertaining to hand-me-down clothes as well as ex-lovers, the double reading is reinforced by the background imagery, which has transitioned from the fabrics of old clothing to what appear to be bed sheets. As the metonymy becomes more obvious in these middle pages, the reader is encouraged to reread the more ambiguous beginning of the book, which now takes on new depth.

Structural and compositional clues help readers navigate these ambiguities without resolving them, which would rob the book of its richness. Pages without text serve as transitions between trains of thought. The result is a book with three loosely demarcated sections and a conclusion, all of which blend fluidly together. As one reads, the book is unified and the narrative progresses naturally in chronological order. On a second reading, one begins to note correlations between text and image, pacing and composition, which signal shifts in tone and subject. For example, in the opening section of the book the images of a sweater hem stretch the full width of each spread and the text sits just above this horizon line. These compositions feel stable, calm and strong; the narrator talks about her parents. As the book continues into the tension and confusion of romantic relationships, the text sinks to the bottom of the page and the images are angular and unstable. Even the relative sharpness or softness of the imagery fluctuates throughout the book and influences how the text reads.

The book’s strength is in the way that gradual shifts in mood and increasingly loaded figurative language effectively expand the narrative. This gradual departure from the literal requires a reappraisal of what has already been read, and poses multiple readings of the content to come. In this way familiar symbols, like clothing and domestic spaces, elicit explorations of deep psychological territory like memory, relationships, and the body. The depth of these topics transcend the narrator’s specificity, which allows readers to contemplate their own relationship with the past, and the objects and places that define it. Vestige encourages introspection, but also empathy.

Continue Reading

Helen Hiebert – Cosmology

Carl Adamshick, Poet, Helen Hiebert, Maker

Isobel Morrison, © 2012

This essay originally appeared in a catalog produced by Kitty Maryatt’s Fall 2014 Core III class (all sophomores) at Scripps College for the exhibition titled CBAA Members’ Exhibition, in the Clark Humanities Museum, shown January 7 to February 17, 2015.

Cosmology is defined as “the science of the origin and development of the universe”, pertaining to great mystery and historical depth. While Helen Hiebert’s artist book Cosmology does not attempt to tackle any astronomy, theory or particle physics, it does function as an elegant tribute to the universe and its delicate mysteries. Helen Hiebert’s creamy paper and conceptual structure coupled with Carl Adamshick’s serene poem evoke the fluidity of time and inaccessibility of memory. Hiebert’s unusual book structure and the space she creates within the book helps to inject additional meaning into the book, and differentiate it from other artist books, and ultimately it is because of this creation of space that the book is so successful.

Cosmology is, at first glance, a fairly simple book. Comprised of a one-sheet book structure, it does not seem to function as anything more than a simple artist book, with beautiful Japanese inspired handiwork and a short poem inside. Upon further handling, however, the book is elevated, its presence complicated and expanded upon by Hiebert’s ingenious use of space, as

“every intention presupposes a purpose, a utility.” (Carrión)*

Essentially, the book can be expanded to create a small ‘square’ of space within the middle of the book, allowing for the intricately cut paper frame to create what looks like a window within the book. This renders the book three-dimensional, and in doing so alters its existence as simply one of a passive work of text into an active, engaging art piece that has a dynamic capability. The three-dimensionality of the book also helps to draw attention to the beautiful paper that Hiebert has made.

The poems reference looking outside windows, into the mountain air, and because the frame pops open, it draws attention to the alternating pale blue and white pulp colors on the paper behind the frame. This creates a depth; it invites the viewer to indeed see this frame as a window: into what, you yourself can decide. Hiebert mentions on her website that the frame was inspired by

“the way light filtered through traditional shoji screens in the Ryokan (Japanese Inn) where I stayed”,

and even the background story behind the geometric composition of the frame helps to instill the frame with additional meaning. It is meant to be enjoyed as a real, physical space: you can look through the frame, you can look into the frame, and you can look past the frame, and each of these distinctions help elevate the book into the realm of a distinct, unique artist book. The structure also alters the way in which the book can be viewed. It can be held like a traditional codex, between two hands, but it can also be displayed in an upright fashion, and this helps to transform it into a more permanent structure. These are important considerations when looking at artist books because they exist unlike typical books: they are supposed to incorporate dynamic viewing and Cosmology does just this.

There is a great deal of meaning that the poetry and the structure of the book add to each other, which is another example of Hiebert’s strength of vision. Within the twelve-line poem, the motif of a ‘window’ shows up twice, and this connection ultimately helps to imbue both sections with additional meaning. Adamshick’s poetry is meaningful, and as simple and complex as you desire to make of it. The opening sentence, spread over two lines describes how

Silence is a window

open to the mountain air,

and this sentence is a perfect representation of the elegance and clarity of his poem. He guides the reader through various images, images of

. . . a transparent map

of moonlight


an ocean floor

and the lost city

where your child grew tall.

His poetry is unadorned; emotion is rendered through the sense of loss and sentimentality, nostalgia for the sake of the bittersweet sadness it brings. The materials on which it is printed on, and the pale blue and sky blue and white that the book is comprised of, helps to reinforce specific imagery: that of the ocean, of mountain air, of falling water. This relationship between the structure and the content is especially important in artist books, as without it there is a decisive lacking in the book’s

“reason to be, and to be a book.” (Drucker)*

The sweetness in Adamshick’s diction, as well as the sense of discovery and contentedness that pervades the entire poem, helps point to the same creation of space that the structure does: the explicit meaning in the map, the ocean floor, the lost city and the mountain.

Aside from those more obvious references to space, he adds an additional spatial element: one that transcends tangible, physical space and instead exists as something infinite and intangible: time. The description of

the lost city

where your child grew tall,

and line that

Memory is the water

you hear falling

on the mountain

as your hand pushes

the silence close.

both point to a loss, of time and love and noise. The poem is both exceedingly simple and complex, and it is hard to take away from the poem a particular feeling: but when coupled with the structure, colors, and framing, the poem grows into something meant to be taken less literally and more figuratively: an emotion you are encouraged to feel as opposed to an emotion you are expected to decipher.

Ultimately, Helen Hiebert creates an artist book that is both simple and complex, gentle and striking. The book creates space and references space, and the integration of these unique characteristics (that are rooted in memory) help to further the poetry by Adamshick. While Cosmology does not deal with many complicated images or scientific structures, it nevertheless references things both tangible and intangible, through both content and structure. It is an evocative book, one that makes the viewer feel an emotion that is at times unidentifiable; and this is the beauty of its final form.


*references from  The Century of Artists’ Books, Johanna Drucker
Essay: The New Art of Making Books by Ulises Carrión in
Artists’ Books, A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Joan Lyons

Continue Reading

Pamela Olson – Circular Logic

Circular Logic draws from company circulars from the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) archive at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Specifically, the book presents an account of terminated employees and the reasons they were fired. Olson makes a number of choices that reinforce the book’s relationship with the archive that inspired it, which ultimately positions the book as commentary on the concept of the archive as well as the particular content. Even the book’s housing in a trifold portfolio straddles the vocabulary of books arts and conversation. The paper has the look and feel of aged newsprint, and the typography and imagery have their roots in the 19th century. Additionally, a number of indexical elements point to the railroad, including a rail map that also serves to unify the book and its cloth covered portfolio enclosure.

Circular Logic is a pocket sized codex. The cover is letterpress printed with a CB&Q Railroad map on heavy cover stock and the text block is attached only to the back cover. This allows the viewer to open the book completely flat and also to appreciate that the link stitch sewing was done across tapes printed with the same map as the cover. The next surprise is that each recto folds out to create a three page spread. The initial spread shows an employee’s name on the verso and their job title on the recto. The second action, unfolding the right hand page, reveals a portrait of the employee in what is now the center of a three page spread with the reason they were fired on the far right.

Through this structure, the reader is anachronistically implicated in the employee’s termination. Hidden behind the folded page, the employee is in limbo like Schrodinger’s cat, both alive and dead, simultaneously employed and terminated. Only when the reader turns the page to view the portrait is the employee fired. The temporal confusion recalls Barthe’s observation that in film (but also artists’ books which are sequential), images operate in the future perfect tense; they simultaneously have-been and are-yet-to-be. However, unlike in film, the reader of Circular Logic determines when the yet-to-be is enacted. Perhaps knowing that the subject is already deceased lessens the burden of firing them. The result is a sort of game theory, driven by the reader’s curiosity and a sense of schadenfreude, which is strengthened by the comically quaint rationale for many of the terminations.

The book’s three-page spreads, each with a portrait in the center, resemble an altar or the kind of hinged triptych photo frames reserved for the nicest family photos. Either reference lends the book a quality of intimacy and remembrance. Formally, the three page spread also creates enough white space to balance the weight of the subject’s silhouette. The left and right pages have no more than a couple words, printed in small type, against stark expanses of white space. What these spreads lack in narrative, they make up for in spacial composition.

The minimal text, quoted directly from the company circulars, thus seems all the more matter of fact and impersonal. The type is set in Bulmer, which makes sense historically; perhaps it is the exact face used in the original circulars. The typography, in terms of size and typeface, certainly adds to the bureaucratic sensibility. As a narrative text, Circular Logic is unusual, introducing each character at the same plot point: their immanent termination. The characters exist parallel to one another, tragic figures connected only through their misfortune, destined not to interact. Even their names have been altered, which heightens the bureaucratic aesthetic. The reader is challenged to sympathize with subjects whose identities are obfuscated at every turn.

The flat silhouettes divulge mostly hair style and head shape and do little to lessen this challenge. The portraits are printed from photopolymer plates exposed using hand cut rubylith stencils. The images are derived from anonymous photographs from the same era, and the image making process also seems to recall the paper silhouette portraits that proliferated around the turn of the nineteenth century. Combined with the altered names, the anonymity of the silhouettes reinforces the idea that the subjects’ identities are being withheld to protect them, whether out of compassion or bureaucratic best practices. Behind either rationale is a tinge of comic absurdity given the book’s obscure subjects, small edition size, and artistic intent.

Given the historically appropriate typography and imagery, it is from the design decisions and details surrounding the imagery that the book’s artistic license emerges. The silhouettes are printed in brown, matching the title and inside text as well as the cloth cover on the book’s enclosure. Each silhouette is situated in a rectangular frame, the same on each spread, which is printed in the same golden yellow as the route map on the cover and spine. The yellow frames are surrounded by a brown ornamental border; a simple pattern of hatch marks. This pattern is a ubiquitous letterpress border, but in this context it reads perfectly as a railroad track. The presentation of each portrait unifies each spread with one another and with the book as a whole.

This unifying function is one way Circular Logic interrogates the concept of the archive as well as the specific content of the CQ&B Railroad. The reader receives an orderly presentation of certain data, which looks and feels like an archive but may have little in common with its actual source. As Olson explained at a recent panel discussion in Chicago, Circular Logic grew out of her own time working with the CQ&B archive at the Newberry Library. The book is not a simple representation of the original archive, but is the product of reading, editing, and reproduction, which are all creative acts. Decisions like withholding the subject’s real names and obscuring their identities, the book both uphold certain scholarly conventions (even to an absurd degree), and simultaneously question the archive as a source of truth and objectivity. Olson activates the archive and then invites her readers to do the same.

Continue Reading