Today I’m writing about one of Charlene Matthews books.
First here’s a bit about Charlene:
Charlene Matthews is a top-notch binderess working in Los Angeles. She is exceptionally skilled in traditional book craft; well versed in problem solving and working with the sometimes exotic materials her clientele demands. Happily for lovers of artists’ books, Charlene gives her imagination free reign when working on her own projects, creating books that are solidly built and full of a lighthearted whimsy. She summarizes these projects in this way:
I have been a voracious reader from early on . . . All this reading has put a lot of stories in my head, and I’ve digested them into pictures and maps. Subconsciously my book art creates some of those maps. I am drawn to words, a story and smell. The words fragment into graphics and photos, the story into maps, the smell into the materials I use.
Her mixing up of materials is well-executed in Through the Window, a 2010 artists’ book. The book is housed in a lavender clam shell box that has a roughly cut, off center rectangular swatch of floral fabric affixed to the top cover. This swatch does not, however, offer an accurate clue as to what the book inside looks like or conveys. The swatch’s splash of color offers the only deviation from the otherwise neutral, muted tones used throughout the book.
The book’s exterior cover is elegant beyond the expectations set by the general demeanor of its box. Covers of natural (undyed) sheep vellum over boards with foil stamped title are lined with watered silk. The pages are bound using a six needle coptic sewn onto vellum straps laced onto the cover boards. The binding is exposed and Charlene has created a pattern over each strap by cross-linking the threads.
The pages are created from nylon window mesh. This flexible, tactilely inviting material, with its open weave and translucency, provides an appropriate stage for the unfolding of Charlene’s pictorial narrative. The narrative begins without preamble (i.e. there are no end pages nor a title page), with a collage of cut out fabric appliquéd on to nylon window screen mesh; the image of a laughing, harlequin styled face – a hole cut out in the wide open mouth’s interior. This page is followed by fifteen more; most have sewn collages of cotton and linen fabrics in muted beige and off-white tones, stitched into place with linen thread. Two of the pages are imaged entirely with thread; the white stitches creating labyrinthine marks that read as maps or aerial views.
The free floating arrangement of the fabric cut outs leave most of the screen empty, allowing glimpses of the next page (or two, or three) before the page is turned. Many pages have entire sections cut out of the collaged shapes’ interiors, allowing unimpeded view to the following page.
Another feature of this book is that the collages appear facing first one direction then, when the page is turned, face the opposite. Matthews has not just pieced her images in place on top of each screen, she has also woven parts of the fabric appliqués through to the next page. This adds a variety to the tones and textures to the nearly monochromatic palette. It takes me a minute to realize that one reason a left facing profile reads so differently than the right facing profile on the reverse of the same page is due to the screen functioning both as substrate and as collaged element.
The individual pages are edged with cotton string, oversewn with linen thread. Most of the pages’ imagery feature aspects of the human body, depicted in simplified forms – floating heads facing front and in profile, hands spread open with fingers extended, disembodied features such as eyes, and what could be a detached foot (or nose?) floating through the pages’ spaces. Or maybe these are creatures other than human? The pictorial elements are comfortably familiar, but not merely derivative. It is as though Matthews has invented her own set of symbols rather than adopting those already in our cultural lexicon.
Charlene has, with this series of images, floating in space, yet fixed in place, presented me with a pictorial narrative; the materials open weave a perfect parallel to the openness of the narrative. The images serve as a starting point for me to devise my own story rather than inviting me to read a narrative of another’s devising.
At the outset I recognize and accept an invitation to join Charlene on a wild ride of imagination. At the end of my first romp through these pages, I recognize that future romps through these same pages will give me a chance to invent an entirely different narrative. I vacillate between being slightly envious and slightly alarmed at what Charlene sees through her own window but end this first reading pleased to have been invited along for the ride.