Monday, April 26, 2010

In the beginning was the Word

Two recent conversations have reminded me that, while people are intrigued by my use of book pages as a substrate for painting, that material can be disconcerting for others. The first conversation happened when discussing possible materials for use in a drawing student’s final project. I mentioned book pages and she vigorously objected. She said that, having worked for a library, she had too much respect for books to tear the pages out. I assured her that, having worked for three libraries and a bookstore myself, I had no less respect for books.

The second conversation happened via email with a friend and collector. I was describing the recent 1821 German Bible I had acquired from a local used bookstore and noted that I was excited to start tearing the pages out. My friend has actually purchased some of my works on book pages, but assured me that his fundamentalist upbringing has so marked him that he felt he could never tear pages out of a Bible.

It actually took me some time to warm to the idea of removing pages from Bibles and hymnals—or any other books for that matter. I asked a couple artist friends about their use of Bible pages first. I then began experimenting with work on book pages by using books other than Bibles, and texts that I wasn’t planning to keep in my own library. Eventually, I began to use Bibles, hymnals, and other religious texts. I found these in used bookstores and at flea markets. These tend to be forgotten books that have no remaining connection to their original owners.

This German Bible is a good example. It is one of those old, large family Bibles in which people used to write births, deaths, and marriages—the kind that were passed down over generations. There are many things handwritten—in German—on the front pages. I can’t read any of it. It seems, to many people I know, that dismantling such a book, which must have a rich history, is a travesty. That is one way to look at it.

I see the re-use of this book within artworks in a different way. Yes, there are pressed flowers, prayer cards, and a lock of hair scattered between the pages. However, no one had a lasting connection with the people those items represented anymore, otherwise they would not have given the book away. The book is also somewhat unreadable. The pages are riddled with discolorations and foxing. When I use the pages for a painting they get a new life—they are resurrected.

Not only does the text itself matter in the paintings, the connection with history is important. Since many of my works consider the lives of saints—canonized or otherwise—the continuity with those who have gone before us is essential. The quiet lives of the ordinary folks, unknown by the masses, are equally significant in the scope of things.

As an artist, I wish to invite viewers into my work in as many ways as I can. For some, it is the visual images themselves that draw a connection. For others, the existence of text within the works seems like an invitation to learn some deeper truth about the work that the image itself does not readily reveal. There is even a segment of viewers who, sensing the age of the book pages, feel a connection to a common history. These are all valid approaches. Feel free to pick whichever point of entry feels most logical. The work is multifaceted and open to several interpretations.

1 comment:

techne said...

i too use books as a material (or substrate), and often use bibles as well (especially the german and other foreign languages as they tend to be read as texture and 'bibleness'). i never really had much of an issue there - it's ink on paper and it's jesus who is the living word - but have had very interesting discussions with others who have had issues.

it would be interesting to discuss reactions with adherents of other religions and how they would feel about artists interacting with those texts (though i would probably avoid the q'uran)...