Booking Agents: An extensive exhibition at Towson University explores the growing genre of artist books. by Cara Ober

“I believe that the book as we have known it may end up being very special one day—like illuminated manuscripts,” says J. Susan Isaacs, curator of The Book: A Contemporary View Exhibition, on view at the Center for the Arts Gallery at Towson University through November 5.

“We live in interesting times,” continues Isaacs. “There is definitely a shift to digital and audio books. My students are beginning to purchase digital textbooks. Both my 80-year-old mother and my 27-year-old daughter now read largely on Kindles and computers. I listen to audio books. Yet, or perhaps because of this, the book arts field is lively and growing.”

For many years, Isaacs, an art history professor and curator at Towson University and Curator of Special Projects at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, wanted to curate an exhibition that addressed the depth and breadth of the growing genre of contemporary book arts. The result of Isaacs’s research is an all-encompassing exhibit that features more than forty nationally known artists. Designed to consider the book from a variety of different angles—as a unique object, a subject for art making, and as a conceptual tool—this exhibit includes sculpture, painting, installation, video, and various types of artist-made books, deconstructed books, and “book installations.” Through its variety and thoroughness, this exhibit challenges previously held notions of what a book is and can be, and exploits a book’s essential characteristics into new and extreme formats.

One of the largest and most colorful “books” in the exhibit is (S)Edition by Melissa Jay Craig. From a distance, the edition of ninety-nine hand-shaped books appears to be a swarm of red-capped toadstools growing off the wall. Closer inspection reveals that each sculpture is, in fact, a book, with a red, dotted cover and its pages unfurling underneath, like the striated gills of a mushroom cap. Besides its Alice in Wonderland sense of visual fantasy, (S)Edition has an emphatic message: Sedition literally means to incite a rebellion against authority. Just as fungi appear mysteriously and spontaneously, and feed off of the demise of another living organism, books are often powerful, subversive elements in society. Proliferating like, well, fungus, throughout history, the function of the book has been a powerful agent for change and progress.

Another dramatic example of what a book can become is Long-Bin Chen’s Flying Angel 6. Hanging from the ceiling, this sculpture appears to be an arched human figure, and resembles the prow of a boat. The artist created the three-dimensional sculpture by collecting discarded books, stringing them together with the spines facing up, and then carving the entire form with chainsaws, drills, sanders, and scissors to create a human likeness. Stylistically similar to traditional Buddha sculptures, Chen’s Flying Angels are a larger than life reminder that paper debris, viewed as worthless by most people, can be repurposed and recycled into meaningful, enlightening creations.

Brian Dettmer also carves books, but works like an archeologist, rather than a sculptor. His contribution to the exhibit, Standard American, 2008, is an altered set of vintage encyclopedias. After combining the set into one block form, Dettmer excises specific illustrations and snippets of text, creating a relief sculpture with a topographical feel. Technically painstaking and breathtakingly detailed, Dettmer’s careful carving transforms the traditional reference manual into a dramatic tableau where disparate images coexist, contrasting one’s idea of knowledge with a complex web of visual representations.

Michelle Wilson’s Libros Perdidos (Lost Books) installation explores the tradition of burning books by displaying one hundred small, handmade books, which have all been charred to varying degrees. From the historical destruction of thousands of Mayan and Aztec texts by Spanish conquistadors, to the mass book burnings by the Nazis in World War II, to the recent controversy surrounding Pastor Terry Jones’s burning of the Koran, Libros Perdidos acknowledges that the practice will likely continue into the future. Displayed above a bed of ashes in the corner of the gallery, this memorial for lost books mourns not only the information lost, but the people and cultures behind them.

Many of the artists included in The Book at Towson University address the book’s current anachronistic status and present differing views on the future of the book as we know it. Louise Levergneaux’s City Shields, DC Vol US 1: No.1, 2006, and the accompanying video A Look at City Shields, 2009, document the artist’s travels in a hybrid format which addresses digital methods of documentation. As Levergneaux travels throughout the U.S., Canada, and Scotland, she walks the city streets and photographs its manhole covers to remember each journey. Each manhole cover photograph is die-cut to the size of a compact disc and the artist book is housed in a clear plastic jewel case. Even the accompanying DVD also resembles a manhole cover, blurring the boundaries between the tactile and digital.

For book-art aficionados, The Book: A Contemporary View Exhibition is a “who’s who” of nationally known contemporary book artists, and includes many of the founders and trailblazers in the genre. For those new to the practice, the exhibit presents a myriad of fresh perspectives, innovative techniques, and a comprehensive range of practices within this rapidly growing subject.