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The Rarefied, Cryptic, and Fascinating Medium of Artist’s Books

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The Rarefied, Cryptic, and Fascinating Medium of Artist’s Books

The Strength of Denham, 2004, by Angela Lorenz (Gianluca Perticoni/Eikon Foto)

A look at the sublime craftsmanship of Angela Lorenz

I  write a lot about exhibitions, museums, dealers, and, of course, money, which makes all of these worlds go ’round. I’d like to start writing periodically about individual artists, the currently living and breathing kind. These are artists I like. All are under the radar because of their youth, and that means anyone younger than I am by double digits. Each is traditional but each does work that’s very outside the box. I’ll start this week with Angela Lorenz.

Angela Lorenz works in the most rarefied, cryptic, and fascinating medium. She makes artist’s books. She’s American, from the North Shore in Massachusetts, went to Brown, and spends part of the time here but part of her time also in Bologna. She’s married to the owner of a gelateria in Bologna once selected by the Times of London as among the best in Europe, high praise indeed given their ubiquity.

The artist’s book is easy to define; the concept, less easy to grasp. It’s a book, more or less, made by an artist. One artist is making all the choices. There’s no editor or publisher. Every facet, from materials to graphics, imagery, and words, is the product of one artist. It’s a book, which means mixed media — paper, words, pictures almost always — and it means multiple pages bound or cased together. We experience it in a sequence. Almost always, artist’s books are witty and erudite. You’ll find puns and epigrams. They’re often meant to be taken apart and examined closely, since things are rarely what they seem. They’re unlike wall art. They’re not really for display. They defy a one-shot look.

They’re not for slugs. This is serious art.

I’ll start with something simple and lovely from early in Lorenz’s career. It’s called “The Nomad’s Chair,” from 1998. The “book” has a vellum cover with leather labels and a clothbound slipcase and looks like a 19th-century novel from a high-end publisher. Extracted from the case, the book unfolds panorama-style to reveal on one side a short poem by Lorenz, blind-stamped in letterpress, about nomads and rugs. While the viewer unfolds the paper, it becomes two triangles representing two nomad tents. When it’s fully unfolded, it looks like an old tribal rug.

The “rug” is made from 24 pieces of paper printed in a technique called collagraphy. The plate from which the paper is printed isn’t metal but a piece of wall-to-wall carpet. It’s a touch of irony, to be sure, but, practically speaking, it gives the printed paper the feel and look of a carpet’s warp and weft. So, there’s a book, writing, and Lorenz writes the wittiest things, there’s visual art, and a serious theme leavened by whimsy.

Artist’s books are meant to be portable, and that means small and intimate. They’re not for communal experience. Usually they’re in small, limited editions. An artist’s book with an edition of, say, ten or 20 will often have some handwork by the artist. The pages, for instance, in Nomad’s Chair are sewn together with yarn, taking the theme of handmade rugs a bit further.

Nomad’s Chair

On Seats of Learning shows how layered artist’s books are. Lorenz is a hoarder of bits of knowledge, filing them away in her mind, letting them percolate, and then making art from them. On Seats of Learning: Carmen Less Misérable Making El Figaro Cigars is from 2011. Years ago, Lorenz learned about an unusual phenomenon in cigar factories. Torcedores, the workers rolling cigars by hand, collectively paid for lectors to read aloud to them, seated on a raised platform, while they worked. Workers talked less and rolled more. They learned the news or followed a story. This tradition, of course, disappeared where rolling was mechanized, but in Cuba cigars are still made by hand. It still exists, and even during Castro’s time the rollers were fed good literature rather than Communist sludge.

Lorenz’s box takes this practice and injects the persona of Carmen from the opera by Bizet. Carmen, a cigar-roller, is “less miserable” because, in her piece, Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo, is read to the rollers. The cigars are unwrapped to reveal a fan with a poem Lorenz wrote about torcedores and reading. She chose the motif of a fan because men and women in Spain almost always took fans to the opera. The poem is gold-stamped on navy-blue book cloth, folded by hand, and attached to cardboard tubes with copper wire and a ribbon. Painted mulberry paper covers the body and the cork top of the cigar, with threads underneath to simulate leaf veins.

On Seats of Learning: Carmen Less Misérable Making El Figaro Cigars, 2011

Many artist’s books are, aesthetically, very beautiful. Craftsmanship is sublime. They’re cerebral and conceptual, too. They’re usually packed with social commentary. Some are abstract, some aren’t. In terms of media, style, and themes, they go in almost every direction the art of today goes. Some artist’s books today incorporate video, computers, or even performance.

For those who like to think about categories or schools, here what I say. As didactic as they are, they’re very modern. Mixed media, found objects, irony, and interactivity all have found a place in artist’s books. There’s a bit of Dada in the punning, and some Surrealism. Joseph Cornell’s boxes aren’t artist’s books but they’re in the neighborhood. When I look at Lorenz’s work, I sometimes think of independent film, where one artist is producing, writing, directing, editing, even filming or acting.

The Strength of Denham from 2004 is pure genius. The piece was inspired by a line in an Alexander Pope poem about John Denham (1615–69). Denham was a Zelig of his age, a poet, playwright, and raconteur in London, a spy for the Royalists in the English Civil War, witness to the Great Plague in 1665 and to the Great Fire in 1666, an MP, a gambling addict, committed lunatic, very public cuckold at the hands of his dreadful wife, and subsequently a suspected wife-killer. After the Restoration, he was King Charles II’s official architect. In his final days, Denham maneuvered Christopher Wren into the official architect’s position, giving modern London its visual muse. He’s buried in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.

The Strength of Denham, 2004

The work is highly concentrated in puns and double-entendres, in keeping with 17th-century satire, which often aimed below the belt. Denham’s name is a homophone for “denim,” a below-the-belt material, and Pope waxes on “Denham’s strength” as a poet. Jeans are a 19th-century convention known today for durability but also for casual, egalitarian flair. Men’s high fashion in Denham’s time became remarkably casual, as one textile historian wrote, causing well-dressed men appear “as dukes disguised as art students.”

Denham wrote heroic couplets and neatly turned ethical and moral sayings. He targeted Cromwell’s Roundheads and Puritan fanatics. Lorenz looked at Denham, his times, and denim and created flimsy paper jeans, colored with blue pencil and sewn on a sewing machine for realistic effect, as a perfect metaphor for his abundant strengths and weaknesses. Lorenz tells his story in a ribald 696-line poem in Denham’s style, and packages it like a deck of cards in the back pocket, memorializing the gambler who lost a vast inheritance just after writing a tract against gambling to persuade his father he’d reformed. The object is painstakingly crafted. Everything, including the buttons, is made of paper. It makes a strong visual statement.

Where’s the book? Jeans aren’t just an allegory with legs. In Lorenz’s hands, they’re a slipcase to house her poem on his life and work. Lorenz researched Denham’s physical proportions. Denham’s “jeans” would conceivably fit the long, lanky type she learned he once was. The poem rolls out in a long zigzag scroll. In another twist, she made nine other pairs of jeans each dedicated to a subsequent poet — Pope, Swift, and Dryden, among them — influenced by Denham’s style. Each is sized to fit the poet Dedham inspired.

Lorenz is doing something different now. She’s done an artist’s book and three framed triptychs, not books but flat art, as a group piece exploring ancient ideals of elite sports for women. It celebrates the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting, among other things, discrimination between men and women in school sports teams. The project consists of three triptychs — nine framed images of three each — based on Roman mosaics dating from a.d. 300. Initially, when they were discovered in the 1950s, the bikini-clad women in the mosaics were interpreted as holding tambourines and rattles. Through research, we now know they were carrying a discus and weights for the long jump. Women’s athletic games were, we’ve learned, common in the ancient world.

Victorious Secret: Noticing Elite Sports for Women, 300 A.D. (Zara Tzanev for Tufts University)

In the staid 1950s, no one, not even scholars, could imagine this was the case. It had to be classical Beach Blanket Bingo. The installation is traveling throughout the country. It’s been displayed at Brown, Penn, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, Tufts, and Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. It’s at Wellesley starting in October. The artist’s book opens into a fan shape, as peacock and ostrich fans were used in Roman times by well-bred women. The peacock was the symbol for the goddess Juno, to whom many ancient women’s athletic games were dedicated.

Why are artist’s books so little known? It’s a niche market. They’re generally not intended to decorate a home. That reduces the number of collectors to a very discerning few. This changes the market. The dealers are not the big players but specialists, sometimes antiquarian book or print dealers. Nobody is getting rich. Libraries or university special collections often buy them. Artist’s books are shown in museum and library shows, but I’ve yet to see a blockbuster.

In a few weeks, I’ll write a piece about James Prosek, a young artist who paints, writes, and makes films. He is the Audubon of Fish. Next week, I’ll review the Tintoretto show at the National Gallery in Washington.

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