“What are books?” is a suddenly tangible question these days, as people start to try out Kindle e-readers and iPads, or thumbing through digitized classics from Gutenberg.org on their smartphones. More than print newspapers, they’ve long been treasured as much for their tactile qualities – from covers and illustrations to size and heft – as what they contain. They have also long centered a very specific strain of creation – Book Arts, as which the medium is generally known – that has had a strong presence in our region because of Women’s Studio Workshop’s 35-plus-year history championing the form, along with key programs teaching it in many of the area’s top colleges.
The new exhibition opening at SUNY-Ulster, “In Retrospect,” features three veterans of the medium who have maintained cutting-edge reputations by carefully following their Muses – and collaborations with literary artists, in many cases – into areas that combine a love for the book form itself with keen interests in the past, from how it’s represented and resonates to the ways in which it mirrors personal concerns. “In my work, I play with the sense of reverence that people bring to official knowledge and history,” notes Cummins, the High Falls-based creator of 25 artist’s books. “I seek to ambush my audience – to generate an experience of surprise, wonder and revelation that is both personal and political.” Cummins’ pieces have a playful side, as evidenced in her early exploration of the ideas reverberating around a found Checkbook to a new collaborative piece, with a poet friend, that is exploring the reverberations from the Salem witch trials a century after their ignoble end.
Each of the three women pulls from various sources – delving into public and private archives, libraries and dumpsters – and then places their textual subjects in wildly differentiated formats, often with other arts media used to enhance what emerges. Cummins infuses touchy subject matter into banal settings such as quilts, photo albums and ledgers. Lovett emphasizes memory and the ways in which people “save” things in her layouts and the final objects that she creates. Atlas assembles pieces from comic books, advice columns and vintage cookbooks to explore assumptions about gender.
“I am interested in creating a kind of visual poetry in how the images both resonate and collide with each other. To that end, in some page spreads the images flow together at the horizon line, while in others there is a discordant juxtaposition of space and form,” writes Lovett, a professor at SUNY-New Paltz. “There’s both continuity and tension between beauty and damage, between past and present and between what appears to be documented and what we think we know.”
Again, Atlas sums it up in her own artist’s statement: “The book form provides a familiar point from which to challenge personal and cultural constructions of knowledge,” she notes. “Melding modern technology with age-old objects and traditional materials, and adding a liberal dose of irony, my work seeks to invite my audience to engage with me on the issues of gender and culture that I find most fascinating.”
Given the interactive elements and literally “off-the-wall” requirements tied to the Book Arts medium, this promises to be a truly fun and thought-provoking exhibit – as has become the norm now at the Muroff/Kotler. The gallery, located in SUNY-Ulster’s Vanderlyn Building, is open Mondays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and by appointment. It is closed on college holidays.
“In Retrospect: Artists’ Books & Works on Paper” opens with an Artists’ Reception from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, November 19 and then stays up until December 10. For more information, call (845) 687-5113 or visit www.sunyulster.edu.