Just ask anyone who loves the smell of new books: Print still holds a place in the hearts of even the most digital-savvy tablet owner. But it's also been important to artists.
The Craft and Folk Art Museum’s new show “Chapters: Book Arts in Southern California" traces the development of book arts from the 1960s to now and offers visitors a chance to see pieces they might not otherwise encounter (unless they spend their free weekends at libraries or archives).
Working with independent curator Danielle Sommer, exhibitions curator Holly Jerger took on the daunting tasks of creating a survey of the art book movement and including a “variety of artists and different points of view.”
The show includes work from plenty of well-known artists — John Baldessari, Betye Saar, Ed Ruscha, to name a few — but also pieces from artist groups or artists normally known for their work with other mediums.
At first glance, “Chapters” seems overwhelming in its thoroughness. Most of the show consists of materials displayed under plastic cases, zines and books with their own histories and contexts to understand. Each display offers plenty of that information, giving viewers a good amount of reading to do with each pedestal. Some of the displays include gloves so that viewers can carefully page through volumes.
The exhibition tackles the idea of the artist book from two major vantage points: the book as printed matter (such as a limited-run book or zine) but also as an art object itself. In a highly intricate piece, Susan Sironi takes a found book on gardening and transforms it into a sculptural piece. Sironi carefully creates negative space with the pages, creating thin webs punctuated with color; thin, straight lines at the bottom resemble roots.
“Chapters” encourages the viewer to really slow down and take their time with each display, but choosing a specific theme or topic to explore might be the way to go. The history of book art in Los Angeles proves an especially viable choice.
The exhibition includes historically important publications such as Wallace Berman’s Semina and Judith Hoffberg’s Umbrella. Hoffberg lived in L.A., at one point working at the Brand Library. According to the Los Angeles Times, UCLA acquired a number of items from her collection after her death in 2009.
The exhibit also features materials related to specific communities, movements and spaces, such as the Woman’s Building, founded in L.A. by Judy Chicago in 1973.
“We found out about this publication, this group of Chicano artists who formed Madre Tierra press for a project that was done at the Woman’s Building, and through that found out that Linda Vallejo made artist's books,” says Jerger. “In many cases we knew of artists and their work but we actually didn’t know they made artist's books, per se, until researching this exhibition.”
“Chapters” offers visitors a chance to see L.A. history and culture through the organizations and artists that saw the value of zines and books. One display shows works from the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive in Chinatown — including Mountain School of Art’s First Ten Years, described as “a compilation of all the applications received by the Los Angeles–based, artist-run school since its founding in 2005.”
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In the 1970s, Susan E. King moved to L.A. to get involved with the Feminist Studio Workshop, later becoming the Women’s Graphics Center studio director. A display captures some of the work she created from the 1980s and '90s that influenced many of her peers.
“Chapters” serves as a reminder of multiple movement and communities — ones that might be overlooked or forgotten today. In some cases, the pieces “were more ephemeral,” and rarely preserved except in some institutional collections. “They really could react to the moments that they were living in,” Jerger says. “They could make a lot of them and just give them away or they could be sold for a couple dollars in a lot of cases. There was that freedom in that there was an opportunity to speak what was on your mind in that particular moment, maybe, versus other art forms that live in the world in a different way.”
“Chapters” doesn’t need to fight to prove print served an important part in artistic production — whether as a medium for a sculptural object or as an object to be distributed. The proof is in each display and in the history that each object holds.
"Chapters: Book Arts in Southern California," Craft and Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire; through May 7. cafam.org.