Chicago Book Artists (Part 1)

“Best of Chicago Art Magazine” series. Originally appeared on the site 9/21/2010

note: we’re doing a series on book arts. Write chicagoartmagazine -at-g m a i l dot com to nominate local artists for future articles.

Stephanie Cristello

Brad Freeman, The Grass is Greener, 2001.

What’s in a book? The artists who have been objectively looking at its readable form as an artwork in and of itself have been challenging this notion for decades. The first thing that everyone should know about Artist’s Books is that they aren’t trying to be anything that they’re not. They are books. They are read like books. No matter which way you slice and dice a narrative, no matter how elusive or abstract the story becomes, the pedestrian process involved in ‘reading’ the artwork remains the same and is essential to the completion of the piece.

“The term [Artist’s Book] has been around for more than a hundred years, first with the French Livres D’artistes and subsequently with the photo-books that began to be produced in the 60s,” explains Chicago based artist Brad Freeman. However, the founding artists of book arts, predominantly photographers, began using the book as a primary art object shortly after the start of the photographic medium in the 1840s, perhaps out of necessity. Freeman elaborates on his experience in the early 1970s, when photography was beginning to be accepted as a fine art medium: “The main way that we saw photographs was in books. And some of the books used the book’s form, the potential for narrative within the turning of the pages, to tell photo/text stories.”

Sally Alatalo, Between Clean, 2008.

In Artist’s Books, further than just using book-like-materials, which is often done in the larger spectrum of Paper Arts, the book becomes autonomous. It is very much an object in itself that demands to be held, to be interacted with. In the basest of terms, it is the difference between a work being wall-bound and being self-contained. In this way, although Artist’s Books fall under the category of Paper Arts through their similar material-based practice, they have become a unique way of working separate from all other exhibited mediums. They also require a certain type of interaction, one that is as personal and contained as the object itself.

Collections dedicated to this art form have made these artworks movable, non-conventional and extremely accessible. “Books can appear in places that other kinds of art objects cannot,” emphasizes Sally Alatalo, Chicago artist and faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, “they also have the potential to be acquired relatively inexpensively.”

Judith Brotman, Heredity, 2003.

It is perhaps for this reason that the codex form has become such a widespread phenomenon in a (relatively) short amount of time. Branching first through more closed channels pertaining to artists, these objects have become accepted and advertised by heavyweights in the Modern and Contemporary art world.

Perhaps one of Chicago’s most valuable resources is the Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Despite the intimate process involved in interacting with the pieces, the content is large in numbers. Joan Flasch carries close to 5000 works all created over the last four decades by local, national and internationally exhibited artists.

At the root of its production, the Artist’s Book speaks to the Contemporary art market at large, as it allows for the experimentation of how to develop, construct and de-construct a narrative, whether that be textual or visual. “I learned to be interested in many different things, and how to draw connections across disparate fields, locations, and time periods,” states artist Karen Hanmer when asked about her process. “The content almost always comes first for me.”

The finished product, the visual form and function of the book, is never merely the collection of pre-existing work. Quite the contrary it is a complex and individual art-system that operates through poetic channels, which when in combination with either drawing, painting, collage, print or photography (to name a few), creates what all artists strive to do in the first place: tell a story.

Karen Hanmer, Celestial Navigation, 2008.

Paper Arts have had and long and readable history. However, this art form leaves little to no space for confusion or boredom by being nothing short of a great vessel for imagination. Since the process of understanding what the Artist’s Book is about involves the acknowledgement of its form (codex) paired with an action which we the viewer do on a mundane basis, it becomes an incorporation of the everyday reader’s lifestyle while simultaneously transporting the everyday into the extraordinary. Artist’s Books are one of the most pedestrian forms of exhibited art.

Artists working in this medium are, above all, collectors. For most viewers, these books offer us the closest glimpse into the artist’s mind apart from their sketchbook; the reader becomes a psychic, able to see their memories and thoughts in a simple glance. It is an experience so intimate and precious that we cannot help but fall in love over and over again.