Curator Alicia Bailey on the Intimacy of Artists’ Books and Everything You Didn’t Know about Book Arts
- On October 23, 2017
Alicia Bailey is a curator and artist working in a little-known but fascinating genre of art: artists’ books (also referred to as book arts). Currently the director of Abecedarian Books, Alicia has been working with book forms since the mid-nineties, has owned and run a successful gallery dedicated to book arts, and is the visionary and curator behind the annual Artists’ Book Cornucopia. This year, Art Gym Gallery is hosting the show–and it’s marvelous.
Alicia allowed me (Julia Dillard, Art Gym’s Outreach Director) to pick her expert brain on everything book arts. Alicia’s passion for the genre is palpable. When she talks about artists’ books, her intelligent eyes light up, and she reaches out her hands like she is holding something awe-inspiring.
“I heard about a dancer and a poet who worked together on this performance. A book artist I know was so moved that she actually worked with both of them and created an artist book. And you can do it! You can do just about anything in book form, you really can.”
A Solemn Request, Amy Pirkle
Julia: What is most interesting to you about artist books? What drew you to the genre in the first place?
Alicia: Well, they are very intimate, and very haptic. They typically are something you experience with your body. I’m very introverted an I think it’s a private art form. You know, you can stand in a small space and have an experience that is unique to you– quite different from standing in a museum looking at a bunch of paintings with a bunch of other people. So, the tactile qualities. But there’s also this ability to pour so many different things into this container–there’s imagery, often there’s text, there’s conceptual relationships, and then there’s the building of the form. I think of them as 3-dimensional sculpture. Sorry, strike that–as interactive sculpture, because a book is a 3-dimensional object that you are interacting with.
Julia: Right, so you have all these layers you’re thinking about, from the concept to the way the “pages” relate to each other, from the materials you’re using, and ultimately to the interactive form and how people are going to move through this conceptual journey you’ve created.
Alicia: I think they are related to time arts in that way too, which is really a process of moving forward or backwards.
“I think it [book arts] is a private art form. You know, you can stand in a small space and have an experience that is unique to you– quite different from standing in a museum looking at a bunch of paintings.”
Opening Reception Artist Book Cornucopia VIII at Art Gym Gallery. Photo Credit Erynn McConnell
Julia: Something I’m very intrigued by is this idea of art objects that I can interact with and touch. I know there’s a diverse range of book forms, and some you can touch, and some you can’t because they are fragile. Can you say a little bit about the books in this show and how viewers can interact with them?
Alicia: Sure. Almost all of the works this juror selected in this show are what I loosely refer to as “book-y-books.” Under the big umbrella of book arts there’s sooooo many forms, including objects that just look like books, and she selected pieces that you would look at, and they would clearly be a book. Happily there are no exhibition cases – the majority of the work is exhibited not behind glass. We’ve put some pieces in cases but the doors are off the cases, so all of the pieces can be interacted with by the viewer. That just goes back to the intimate–you can walk in and choose to spend all of your available time with one book. The majority of them are also made in a fairly straightforward way. They are letterpress printed, in multiples, so they are very book-y in production and their initial visual impact.
The content is where it really varies. What I think is a great balance in this particular selection of work, is that although there are a lot of personal ideas and stories being presented, they are presented in a way that doesn’t feel like an individual artist dumping. They are couched in more universal language so there’s a lot of shared experience. And the craft in all this work is impeccable. That doesn’t always happen, because they are juried by digital images, so sometimes the work shows up and I’m like “Eeew, how am I going to display this?” And in this show, everything is really impeccably crafted.
“Sometimes [an artist book] is a row of things that hang on the wall, or a series of file cards assembled in a drawer, and I’ve been asked that question, ‘Well what makes this a book?’“
Shared Illusion, Bryan Kring
Julia: I’m so intrigued by this “spectrum” of artist book forms– so you have book-y-books on one end, but what’s the other end of the spectrum?
Alicia: Things that it’s really a reach to describe as a book. Sometimes the piece is a row of things that hang on the wall, or a series of file cards assembled in a drawer. And I’ve often been asked that question, “Well what makes this a book?”
Part of it is the artist saying “this is a book,” but that’s not all of it. There’s a quality, an approach taken that’s far more book-like in spirit than others. I think it has to do typically with sequencing, layering, and density of information. There’s very few one-liner books.
Julia: Something else I find fascinating about artist books as a genre is this integration of image with text. Can you say a little bit about the relationship artist books have with literature? Where does the text come from? Do artists typically write their own, or draw from other literary works?
Alicia: All of the above – and actually there are books with no words in them. And there are examples of both in the show at Art Gym. There is a book with only words, and there are two books where there is a repeating pattern that is based on language but are not readable to English speakers. And, there are books that have to words at all but have a very clear narrative thread. A lot of artists write their own texts, and a lot of them don’t. And quite often they are collaborations, so the writer is part of the design process. The artist and writer work off the same concept, combining their individual works to make a third entity.
Julia: It seems like there are such diverse relationships these books have with words and with the literature they’re comprised of. That’s such a cool collaboration – two artists working with the same concept but in their unique realm and then seeing how that comes together.
Alicia: It’s not in this show, and I no longer have it in my gallery inventory, but there’s a book artist in Portland who went and saw a dance performance–I think I have this story right–and the dance was being performed to a poem. The dancer and the poet worked together on this performance, and the book artist was so moved that she actually worked with both of them and created an artist book. And you can do it! You can do just about anything in book form, you really can.
Julia: It sounds like the possibilities are so infinite with books.
Alicia: And paralyzing sometimes too!
“There’s a lot of book artists who come from other fields, and bring their photography or their interest in physics. There’s a lot of scientists who move into artist books because it’s a different way to say things.”
The Gravity Series, Casey Gardner
Julia: Right, it’s like “I can do anything! But where do I start…?” When you’re making work as an artist yourself, do you have a place or some places you typically start from?
Alicia: It begins from too many different places, and I don’t have enough of a system for assessing the worthwhile-ness of an idea before I’m halfway through a project. There’s a lot of book artists who come from other fields, and bring their photography or their interest in physics. There’s a lot of scientists who move into artist books because it’s a different way to say things. Personally, I always start with the idea of an object. I’ve also done a lot of work with archives that are part of my family history, and another big interest for me that is somewhat linked to my family history is an interest in the natural world. I feel like I could’ve done well as a researcher or a naturalist. I’m not a writer, so I only write brief snippets for my own work. There’s so many things I’m not, which you’d never know if you saw my books, because they’re good, but I’m not a drawer or a painter, I’m not a “single image person,” so happily…I’ve found book arts.
Julia: What is something that unites book artists? It sounds like as a genre its very diverse, and the kinds of people it attracts and their interests are very diverse. Is there something you feel book artists tend to have in common?
Alicia: Well, and this doesn’t come from me, but we are some of the most generous bunch, some fields seem to have trade secrets, but nobody feels that they own book form. There’s nothing that feels terribly proprietary about it. But I suspect book artists tend to have a lot of interests and an unwillingness to contain them into one specific approach. And they are possibly more introverted than not.
“[Book artists] are some of the most generous bunch…nobody feels that they own book form. There’s nothing that feels terribly proprietary about it. But I [also] suspect book artists tend to have a lot of interests and an unwillingness to contain them…”
Julia: Is there anything that you’d want the general public to know about artists books?
Alicia: Well, I guess as an additional plug for this show, it is a very small genre, and it’s very under-known. When I opened my gallery, I was one of three book artist galleries, all of which are now closed. The opportunity to exhibit books and be able to interact with them is unusual enough to be a draw, but particularly in Denver. This is not a book-arts town. So I think it’s important, and the hours at Art Gym are so generous, 9-6 every day except Sundays. And it’s not a hard place to get to.
I am doing a couple other events throughout the show-I am giving an informal talk–no power point, just a few remarks. Then Gregory Santos and I are doing a joint critique session. I don’t believe there’s enough book artists around, it’s pretty specific, so we will also be looking at prints that people bring in, since often books have prints in them.
Julia: So, basically, people should stop by Art Gym to see all these amazing books that have been made by artists all over the country?
Alicia: Yes, definitely!
Check out the full Artists Book Cornucopia VIII now through Saturday, Nov. 4th, 9am-6pm Tuesday-Saturday, at Art Gym Gallery (1420 Leyden St, Denver, CO).