Unbinding Contemporary Book Art
Samuel Levi Jones & More
For his first solo museum exhibition, Samuel Levi Jones: Unbound, Samuel Levi Jones transforms the Studio Museum's Project Space with a site-specific installation made of dismantled law books. When deconstructed into their basic components—covers and spines—the reference books’ implicit authority symbolically disintegrates. Stitched together in wall-to-wall grids, the fragmented books hang like paintings, emphasizing form and materiality. Once the books are stripped of their identity, their function and value are obscured, even negated. By manipulating law books, Jones engages with recent criticism of the American justice system.
If Jones’s project is of interest to you, check out these five contemporary artists who also work with books! Whether they doodle over the text or chop through the cover, these artists abstract the book’s traditional cultural role and physical form, as Jones does in Unbound.
Like Jones, David Ortiz appropriates reference books in his newest series "Law Journals," which was recently shown in Chelsea at ArtNowNY. With roots in the graffiti culture of 1980s Brooklyn, Ortiz is a prominent figure in the street art and skateboard scenes. His fine art practice integrates the styles of graffiti and cartoons with the forms of ancient Classical sculpture and Modernists like Matisse. Interested in thematic and stylistic crossovers, Ortiz interrupts the strict typography of printed books with his exuberant drawings. Defacing the law books allows him to add a new layer of signification to pages abounding with definitions and regulations. As he layers on his insights, questions and doubts with ink, Ortiz demonstrates his noted desire to challenge authority and perceived limits in both life and art.
In his interdisciplinary artworks, Nicholas Galanin investigates representations of Native American culture, focusing on authority, authenticity and commoditization. From Sitka, Alaska, Galanin is of mixed Tlingit/Aleut and non-Native ancestry, and he hopes his art will liberate contemporary Native artists. For a paper sculpture in his series "What Have We Become?," the artist hand-bound thousands of individual pages and cut his book into a generic face—a grimacing mask-like form lacking cultural specificity. Galanin sources some material from significant texts in Tlingit culture and uses their pages to create totemic animal faces. Other books consist entirely of blank pages, severed through their centers by a face cut in relief. When the book is open, the empty pages upset expectations about the object’s usual content. For Galanin, manipulating the book is an opportunity to explore adaptation and resistance, poetic memory and daily life.
Robert The is known for carving hardcover books into guns based on real-life models. The books that the artist transforms into weapons often have evocative titles when their relationship with violence and power is considered. From Poetic Justice to the King James Bible, the book guns tend to cause sensational reactions. While interpreted as dangerous by some and humorous by others, these works are rooted in The’s interrogation of language. After abruptly—albeit briefly—losing his ability to read during a period of psychological stress, the artist began to explore the fusion of form and meaning. Interested in how the shapes of letters and words function independently before conceptual meaning surfaces, The’s seemingly provocative gesture is in fact an analysis of semiotics and linguistics. Yet, the artist also acknowledges his playful desire to make art that viewers can interact with. His other book artworks include a lobster, an Encyclopedia Britannica broom, and a reinterpretation of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades.
Reference books and official documents are key components in Wim Botha’s mixed-media sculptures, which depict morphing human figures suspended in the air. The South African artist selects printed materials that possess immediate political and cultural significance: World Books, bibles, African dictionaries, old schoolbooks, government-issued prison release forms. Acting interdependently as medium and idea, the books and the information they contain make up the artwork’s physical structure as well as its thematic content. Botha connects his process to a distillation of global systems and human activities. He manipulates and juxtaposes everyday and iconic references in hopes of simplifying universal factors into their core components. By carving compressed books into sculptural busts, the artist dissects human behaviors and uncovers instinctive needs to construct systems, however skewed they may be, and to make sense of the world.
Chicago based photographer Paul Octavious plays with the idea that a book is a sacred grail of knowledge, but he does not physically destroy their structures. To manipulate the books, the artist focuses on their formal elements and the patterns they make as a collective of objects. He treats them as configurations of covers and pages undifferentiated by their internal content. This method highlights how all books are united by their basic manner of construction. Especially interested in similarities of color and structure, Octavious groups the books according to their hues and makes precariously balanced arrangements based on size and shape. Although he disregards the linguist symbols on the pages, he stacks books—whole besides their covers—into recognizable numbers, dates and letters. Additionally, Octavious activates some of his sculptures through performance and photography. As the artist stands atop a teetering pile, he further distances the books from their presumed intellectual value, making them props to be employed and admired for their formal qualities.