Most would consider books to be a finished piece of creativity – in content, certainly, and, often enough, packaging. Certainly, few consider them to be materials- unless you’re using a dictionary to level out a desk or something. There is a subsection of the world, though, that looks at a book much like the traditional view of a sculptor with a piece of granite, and sees possibilities.
I’ve been lucky to see one version of that with Tom Phillips’ “A Human Document” at Mass MoCA, which shows his obsessive progression over the decades of altering the pages of a book in order to create not only art, but poetry, from what remains.
Sculpture from found material is a standard in art, but the use of books can take it to a higher, more intense level, often highlighting an attention to detail and a matched precision to pull off the vision.
The book is very egalitarian thanks to its presentation of the artists in alphabetical order, so it’s pure fortunate luck that your intro to the form, the work of James Allen, is a mind blower.
Allen uses as his materials the insides of the book, which he cuts away to create multilayered, intricate dioramas and three-dimensional collages, whether it’s wrought from encyclopedias, books on the history of costumes or aDC comics retrospective.
Allen’s work is so impressive that it seems almost like it would be the final word in the form, but innovation spills out of the following pages – Thomas Allen’s use of interiors and covers to create stand-up figures, Anonymous’ seemingly impossible cutaway sculptures, Su Blackwell’s forest dioramas and Jennifer Collier’s objects, most notably a typewriter fashioned from a book.
Other highlights include Brian Dettmer’s dense concoctions fashioned from surgical tools used to carve books apart and Guy Laramee’s carved landscapes, but there’s plenty more to stare at.
As books become more digital, the question remains what good the physical form will be. Anyone who has stared at shelves and bins of antiquarian books gone unsold, of old encyclopedias and other reference books piled up in thrift shops, boxes of printed matter featured at library sales, probably has wondered where these will all go. Is this an answer to the unused and forgotten in the wake of a digital transformation? Maybe one of many. If books are considered transformative, then this art made from books is the best physical representation of that truth both now and in the future.