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Voices whispering in the leaves

ART REVIEW: "Art of the Book" 

Voices whispering in the leaves

I recently read a brilliant Carl Sagan quote regarding the existence of books as "proof that humans can work magic," in that they are a tool by which we have broken "the shackles of time," through which we are able to hear the voice of another human, across millennia, and gain from what they have learned about any subject at all. Many of us feel this way about reading — we speak of being transported through story — but perhaps forget the simple fact that we are, for a space of time, privately joining our mind with that of another. The current exhibit at Central Library's Lower Link Gallery celebrates the book as a tool, and as an object of art, with a juried display of dozens of artists' books and artist-altered books.

"The book is an enduring symbol of knowledge and freedom, two basic components of all public libraries in the world," says Patty Uttaro, director of the Rochester Public Library & Monroe County Library System, in a provided statement. Uttaro echoes Sagan's statement that books are magic, citing their use not only in recording history, but as modes of educating people across time and also "inciting history-making events."

The space is filled with tomes that tell stories both personal and on a global level, and range from existing objects warped to weave a new tale, to books created entirely by the artists, to sculptural forms that only allude to the book in the vaguest sense. The fascinating show is well worth an hour's gander, but regrettably, while many of the pieces beg to be held, paged through, and discovered, the delicate works are — understandably — set behind glass, with only a few pages open to viewers.

The exhibit showcases the works of local and distant artists, including some by the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition. Al-Mutanabbi was a street in Baghdad named for the Iraqi poet, and was lined with bookstores and stalls. In 2007, a car bomb exploded and killed 30 people, injured more than 100, and destroyed the street. The Coalition invited letterpress printers and artists from all over the world to produce broadsides and books for a project called "An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi."

Among the locally made works that represent the project is "Shadows of Loss" by Kristine Bouyoucos, a mixed-media, accordion-fold work in which the artist imagines the murdered Al-Mutanabbi booksellers as bright bodies, like reverse silhouettes, "living eternally in a shadow world, gone to our eyes, but with voices that can be heard through the books they were selling," per the artist's statement.

Another particularly moving work under this theme is the grief-stricken "That Day on Al-Mutanabbi" by Barbara Fox, its splay of pages open to alternating pages of Arabic calligraphy and printed English with poetic phrases that express horror, anguish, and brewing hatred, and may certainly be applied to far more than one single day and one single event.

Book artist extraordinaire Scott McCarney, is included in this show with his paper chandelier-esque "Hanging Index No. 20, Last Lines of Poetry," which won the best in show award during last year's "Art of the Book" exhibit. A printed and framed facsimile of McCarney's Al-Mutanabbi book, "Material Meditation on Mending Al-Mutanabbi Street," is hanging in the annex hallway of the Lower Link Gallery.

But the show isn't filled only with elegiac testimonies to tragedy. There are countless works that explore small situations with quiet wonder or humor, or celebrate fleeting beauty. Sue Higgins Leopard is known for her gorgeously constructed works with dreamy, meandering musings. Included here is her hand-dyed, hand-painted, feather-light "flutter" book, "Hummingbird," a tactile and visual exploration of a poem of the same name by Rochester poet Ruth Kessler.

Ania Gilmore's "Library of Alexandria" is a hollow book form set open to reveal a space packed with stained scrolls wound tight, burned, and forever closed to us, a tribute to the tragic loss of knowledge from ancient Africa that was destroyed by the Romans. "Entomological Studies: Terrible Beauty" by Nanci Rosenberg-Nugent is full of beastly bugs, some nearly the size of your fist, which the artist describes as "hidden gems" and has pinned to the pages to resemble a 3D science textbook.

Best in show for the artist-book category went to San Francisco-based Bettina Pauly, for her playful "The Wild Book," which features an accordion-folded tunnel of pink borders and empty centers, layered with rubber-stamped kitchen tool imagery stitched into the book in a way that creates a flurry of activity flying in the open space, familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a commercial kitchen, as the artist has.

Rochester artist Linh Truong's "Fire Fly Path" is similar in that it features an accordion stack of framing pages, leaving an open center tunnel. But this time it is the frames that are prominently featured, each painted to look like trees and greenery. When all but the cover is closed, the book looks like a peaceful, magical pathway through the woods.

Mary Housel-Demanchick's enigmatic "Am I Ruined?" explores a different sort of lost-in-the-woods, and is made up of six white boxes lined with black satin, each holding an object relating six accompanying paintings and a few lines of text regarding voodoo, the church, or the little girl who asks the question.

"The Book of Life Ch. 5: We Are Vulnerable (Rejoice)" by Mary Hazlewood contains a paper sculpture set into a space cut into the open book, in which a skeleton embraces a nude girl under a flowering tree. The artist's straightforward message is about our abject denial of the fact that we are not invincible or immortal, and her belief that accepting the shallow scope of what we get gives more depth to the experiences we may have.

If you're interested in participating in "Art of the Book" 2013, the deadline for entries is set for July 2013. Look for details in February at libraryweb.com/artofthebook.

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