A rare collection gets a new look

Exhibit: This show celebrates the written word. But some artist's books know no bounds.

November 07, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

On a map, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But on the round surface of the globe, the quickest way from one place to another follows the curve of a great circle.

That is the very route taken by Maria Anasazi in her artist's book, World Bound, one of 20 immensely intriguing works that will be on display at Evergreen House through Feb. 28.

The show, somewhat whimsically titled "Kings, Hummingbirds & Monsters: Artist's Books at Evergreen," is a tribute to the 30,000-odd volumes collected by B&O Railroad magnate and indefatigable bibliophile T. Harrison Garrett and his son, John Work Garrett.

Curator Cindy Kelly asked a group of regional artists to create artist's books inspired by the Evergreen House library's superb collection of rare books and manuscripts.

The artist's book, like installation and video art, is a relatively new form, having gained acceptance as an independent genre only in the past 50 years or so.

The definition of the form is still highly fluid: Some artists create conventionally bound volumes that record personal narratives and experiences, others stretch the traditional concept of "book" almost beyond recognition.

What they all have in common is a desire to interrogate the idea of books, reading and how we experience the written word. The show at Evergreen House, the magnificent family mansion on Charles Street where the Garrett Library is preserved, suggests the astonishing range of responses to such questions that artists have come up with.

Anasazi's "book," for example, takes the form of a huge globe made out of thousands of pages of folded paper removed from old books she rescued from flea markets, rummage sales and the like.

World Bound looks more like a sculpture than a conventional book, and even its title is a play on words: The globe formed by its densely bound pages refers both to the "world of books" and to the world as it is revealed through books. The piece also manages to suggest the rich diversity of the Garrett Library collection itself, which encompasses volumes that are either from or about virtually every corner of the Earth.

Linda DePalma's Vieques Venture, another unconventional reading of the book concept, was inspired by one of the Evergreen House library's rarest books, a 17th-century atlas of the world that was published by the Dutch printer Joan Blaeu.

DePalma was fascinated by the groups of hand-colored figures, illustrations of plants and animals and navigational symbols engraved on the margins of Blaeu's early maps of the Americas, which naively recalled both the era's fascination with the exotic and its preoccupation with such emerging modern sciences as botany, zoology and astronomy.

DePalma responded by creating her own atlas-style map of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, where she has lived and worked at various times over the years. Her map is constructed accordion-style in a series of folding panels that refer to the folded pages of a book and to the idea of how our knowledge of particular peoples and places gradually unfolds through experience.

Quite a different approach is taken by Colin Ives, whose "electronic book" based on the library's complete set of James Audubon's Birds of America dispenses with words altogether to make its point.

Ives' piece is a large, rectangular sculpture that looks like a book but in fact has neither pages nor cover: It is literally a book that cannot be opened. Instead, a computer-generated LCD display lies where a book's title would normally be; its screen generates images of birds inspired by Audubon's paintings, while a hidden speaker emits recorded sounds of birdsongs.

Tapping the face of the LCD display causes virtual birds to flit across the screen; the "book" ends with the sound of a gunshot from the hidden speaker, an ominous reminder that Audubon killed thousands of birds during the process of creating his astonishingly "lifelike" images.

The Evergreen House show is full of such apparent paradoxes, as well as many works that celebrate the pure joy of the experience of reading and the sensual tactile qualities of a finely bound volume.

Unlike most exhibitions of contemporary art, viewers are invited to touch and handle all the works on view (the museum has stocked a supply of disposable cloth gloves to protect the books from harm).

This is a fascinating show about a subject most people take for granted, an imaginative, thought-provoking exploration of what books are and how they shape and transform our experience of the world.


What: "Kings, Hummingbirds & Monsters: Artist's Books at Evergreen"

Where: Evergreen House, 4545 Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Admission: $3

Call: 410-516-0341

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