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Wry humor: The’s See No Evil (altered book, 2010).

Picture Books

By Nadine Wasserman

The Imaged Word

Albany International Airport Gallery, through Jan. 9, 2011

Book extinction might be a real possibility but the written word is clearly in no danger of disappearing. The exhibition The Imaged Word offers a contemplation of the word made physical. From literary works to the actual physical form of a book, each artist takes written language, in its various forms, as his or her inspiration. Works on display range from two-dimensional photographs and paintings to three-dimensional sculpture and installation; each presents a different interpretation of the theme.

Books appear frequently in this exhibition. In the age of e-book readers, creative uses for old fashioned books have become commonplace. They can be found as planters, decorative props, or even, ironically, as bookshelves and e-book covers. Scott McCarney works with books that have been discarded, deaccessioned, or found in thrift stores. His Last Lines of Poetry, which dangles above the stairwell, is a reference book that has been cut up line by line so that its contents spill forth in a riotous jumble from its hard cover. McCarney has altered this out-of-date book so that the massive amount of information contained in it has been visually transformed, the words perceptible yet indecipherable.

Robert The also uses discarded and thrift store books as material for his sculptures. He gives these books a second life by cutting various shapes from them. For See No Evil, he has carved a scarab from the spine of the book of the same name. The scarab acts as wry commentary on the contents of this book—photographic portraits of powerful people from New York State.

Like The, Aaron T. Stephan is interested in the contents of books and the visual associations they create. In Building Bridges Stephan has created an impressive architectural illusion using mirrors and thousands of books. In a darkened space the books, which have been assembled into classic arches, appear to repeat into infinity. This piece literally speaks volumes about the ways in which books connect readers to a multiplicity of ideas, both fictional and factual.

Three other artists included in the exhibition further explore and celebrate the visual and associative capacity of books. Fern Apfel uses ink and collage to affectionately portray the books that have been passed down in her family for generations. Each still life is a group portrait organized by shape, color, character, or title. Like Apfel, Fawn Potash makes photographic portraits using old books found in the library of an 1870’s schoolhouse where she lived for 20 years. These worn volumes are props for her studies of balance, imperfection, and ultimately knowledge.

Also interested in vintage books is Gayle Johnson. Her subject matter is equally nostalgic yet far more quotidian. By meticulously recreating the covers of romance novels, including the creases and dog ears that occur with age and use, Johnson considers the kitschiness and popularity of this particular genre.

Rather than use physical books as material or subject, the other works in the exhibition focus more on the written word. William Ransom’s two sculptures are inspired by the writings of specific authors. How High’s the Water Mama is a sculpture made of salvaged wood that is paired with a quote from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac; and Hold Back Hold Forth includes an excerpt from T.C. Boyle’s short story Ash Monday.

Amy Podmore’s sculpture is also accompanied by text, here in the form of poems by the author Trudy Ames that respond to two of the sculptures. The third piece was inspired by Ames’ poem “Community Service.” Barbara Todd and Paul Katz are similarly influenced by poetry, Todd by Paul Celan’s and Katz by William Wordsworth’s. Todd’s Bloom consists of fragments of Celan’s poems floating on one of the gallery’s glass walls. Nearby is Tongues/trees/books/brooks/ sermons/stones, a wall covered in stone shapes, a recurrent image for Todd who collects stones like she collects bits of language and speech. Paul Katz’s The Prelude is an installation of three-dimensional objects that have been covered by Wordsworth’s lengthy poem of the same name.

The visual patterns in Katz’s piece are echoed in a group of notebooks by Gabe Brown. Rather than words, she uses repetitive lines that mimic the rhythmic regularity of written language. In other notebooks, Brown, like Todd, collects fragments of language, song titles, and overheard bits of conversations. She refers to these when she creates her paintings which themselves carry a visual code of color, shape, and line.

The Imaged Word is an engrossing exhibition that presents the work of a disparate group of artists who combine the visual and the textual in their work in order to explore the evocative potential of words, language, and books.

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