Artworks and books are two things that, until recently, seemed to know their place. Art stayed on the wall at arm’s length; books, though portable, kept their mouths shut until you opened them, and they couldn’t say anything more than words could describe, anyway.
Sam Weller’s Bookstore is staging an exhibit that examines the places where books and art intersect, and challenging our ideas of what those two things are. Cult of the Book asked more than a dozen local artists to come up with works on the theme, and the results came from interesting sources, ranging from purely visual artists who had never delved into books as subject matter or raw material before to students in the Book Art program at the University of Utah, who study and practice the building of the book as both a highly skilled craft and as an object of visual wonderment.
Book lovers already view books as objects of beauty, not merely containers for words. “An event that sparked the creation of the show was the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute convention,” says Sam Weller’s employee Stephanie Leitch, who organized the show along with co-worker Shari Zollinger. They saw the convention as an opportunity to show off the bookstore as more than just a building full of bookshelves.
The bookstore has been a growing part of the events during the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll since its “Staff Infection” show more than a year ago, featuring art by current and former employees. The site is part of a growing movement locally as well as nationally to provide more unconventional places to see art. Off the Wall two months ago used found materials from nooks and crannies of the historic building. But Cult of the Book is the first show to take on the theme of books themselves as works of art. “We generated the idea out of indulgence,” explains Leitch, herself a sculptor.
“It’s already a cult among us as book people.” Zollinger adds, “It’s not just the book as object, but all things ‘book,’ including things inspired by the book. The show exposes form versus content.”
The uneasy dance around the boundaries of book and art was exacerbated by notes—with some exhibits marked “handle with care,” some not for handling and a few shielded under glass. “That added awkwardness,” Leitch found. “There’s something so essential about handling a book.” Still, there were some very nice opportunities for “page-turners”: Mary Wells’ Colorless Alphabet and its play on words: “The I is nicely illuminated,” Amber Heaton’s mottled-cover “Dusk” and Claire Taylor’s “Intellect,” whose brain imprinted on the cover belies contents like “observe my tubular attire.” Any content seems elevated by the impressions of fine typeface.
The Book Art contingent created elegant works like Ethan Ensign’s “Late Coptic Binding Model” and Betsey Stout’s “Travels of Baron Munchausen” in goatskin, gold and silver. The entries from the rare-book department at Sam Weller’s included New Helvetica Diary: A Record of Events From September 9, 1845 to May 25, 1848 and one of 950 extant copies of the The Essays of Counsels Civill and Morall of Francis Lord Verulan Viscount St. Alban by Francis Bacon.
Lucy Jensen used Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as a springboard to create a striking photo collage incorporating quotations from the book. A few broadsides take the text in two dimensions, Claire Taylor’s “Javier the Captain F” and Paul Allessini’s “Second Chapter of Luke,” alluding to text as scripture. Holli Zollenger’s portraits include textual elements as part of her subjects’ garb. Jenni Lord and Sherri Pauli take an unconventional look at the book as object of erotica with their collaboration “Suck My Bloody Clit.” “I approached the books as a visual journal to express the tragedies and experiences of my life,” explains Teresa Flowers on her altered book collages that defy the conventional reading experience. “I enjoyed working in the books because of the intimacy and freedom to explore with different mediums and topics from one page to the next. I feel in the books you can sense my heartache, you can see my development and story of an artist.” Amber Heaton’s “Transitive” does the same thing with the composition of the image itself, pages cut away to reveal layers of trees,
clouds and sky. A. Stack stacked LDS-themed books against the wall in the stairwell to the bottom level in a “book pyramid.” Viewers ponder whether to pull a book of interest from the stack, in danger of starting an avalanche. Thus the method of storing books worked against their usual usage.
“It’s almost a better gateway to view art,” Leitch muses about the store. “When books are looked at as art, where does the art show end?” CW
CULT OF THE BOOK Sam Weller’s Bookstore 254 S. Main 801-328-2586 through March 6 SamWellers.com
“Transitive” by amber Heaton