UW-Milwaukee: Artists’ books cast a penetrating light at UWM Exhibition

When is a book more than just something to read?

When it’s an artists’ book.

Artists’ books are works of art that use the form of a book to provoke thought and often to offer commentary on social and political issues.

A selection of outstanding contemporary artists’ books from the UWM Libraries’ Special Collections is on display through Dec. 30 in the Fourth Floor Exhibition Gallery of the Golda Meir Library. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., or by appointment by contacting 414-229-4345 or [email protected].

The idea of books as beautiful objects goes back at least to the early Middle Ages with exquisitely illuminated manuscripts, but really blossomed as an art form for social commentary more recently, says Max Yela, head of Special Collections. “Books as art media are really a 20th century phenomenon.”

What modern book artists have done is take elements like typography, paper, covers and bindings and turn them into expressive art objects in book form, says Yela, who makes books himself and also teaches the concepts and techniques.

The exhibit, “Illuminating the Issue: Artists’ Books as Social/Political Critique,” is organized around themes including contemporary American life, women’s issues, war and its consequences, LGBT and AIDS issues, the environment, issues of race and gender identity, African American concerns, and violence in homes and communities.

“We have so many examples in Special Collections it was really hard to choose just a few,” says Yela. Artists’ books use a wide range of forms – scrolls, fold-outs, loose items in a box, highly sophisticated “pop-up” books and unbound single sheets. Most of the books are printed in limited editions, often on handmade or hand-tinted papers. A few are one-of-a-kind.

An artist like James Allen, for example, develops what Yela calls an “excavated book.” He takes an existing book and carefully cuts away layers and pieces to create scenarios of images and text that evoke the entire content of the book.

Linda Smith’s “House of Cods” looks at overfishing from the codfish’s point of view, with the book’s centerpiece a pop-up house of cards topped by a boat, trailing netting.

Caren Heft’s “If I Should Die, Children Murdered in Wisconsin in 1993” is a stark yet compelling summary of the life of each child killed in Wisconsin in that year. One page, for example, simply gives the child’s name, date of birth (July 2, 1991), date of death (Jan. 7, 1993) and the place (Milwaukee) with the words: “Blunt force trauma to the chest, head and abdomen.”

One of the pioneers of the artists’ book field was Walter Hamady, who taught for many years at UW–Madison, says Yela, and many of his students and the students of his students are included in the current exhibit.

Among the works on display are artists’ books by such well-established artists as Sarah Bryant, Maureen Cummins, Cheri Gaulke, Fred Hagstrom, Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., Susan King, Beauvais Lyons, Scott McCarney, Clifton Meador, Bonnie O’Connell, John Risseeuw, Clarissa Sligh, Claire Van Vliet, Mark Wagner, Marshal Weber and Phillip Zimmerman. 

Wisconsin artists represented include Brian Borchardt, Stephanie Copoulos-Selle, Lewis Koch, Michael Koppa, Joan Michaels-Paque and Jeffrey Morin. UWM graduates and staff in the show are Paul Allen, Caren Heft, Carrie Hoelzer Joubert, Nicholas Lampert, Lindsay Lochman, Greg Martens, Jessica Poor, Petra Press and Dan Wang.