"I had nothing to say, let alone write. I didn't want to listen to music, either," explains poet and book artist Charles Alexander.
Within a couple months, he was able to dip into Coltrane. "Over and over, I'd listen to 'A Love Supreme.' It was intensely angry but also calming. After a while, it started entering my writing--it just crept in, like sunlight," explains Tucson's founder and director of the long-running Chax Press, a publisher of poetry and artists' books.
Alexander says the impact of Sept. 11 as a singular event may be fading for artists and writers, but what it's brought to our awareness about global issues is radiating.
It's that endurance that fuels the work of 50 book artists in Love and/or Terror, an exhibit at the UA Museum of Art, as well as a symposium with the same title this weekend. The books range from beautifully crafted, recognizable forms where words tell the story and pages turn to decidedly sculptural "epics" that use less book-like materials to visually, even sonically, express a narrative.
Two years ago--ironically before Sept. 11--Alexander and a couple of other local writers/book artists brainstormed a theme for the national exhibit and accompanying symposium.
"Karen White and Judith Golden and I tossed ideas around. When we talked about love as a theme, we worried it might be too poofy. So then we meandered around love and terror. I pushed for it to be 'and/or.'"
Books as grenades? Perhaps, says Alexander.
"When I was first studying book arts, my mentor described them as 'The Trojan Horse of Art.' A book is a very intimate thing, seemingly unthreatening. It's generally something that unfolds in time and space, in a sequential order. It has the potential for deep, elongated thinking. Perhaps that's why an artist chooses to work with those materials. The book is a common object, but it can be wonderfully transformative."
Theoretical discussion about book arts is still nascent, despite its long history in the avant-garde arts of the 20th century. Theorists still ask, "What is it?" One scholar stands out to answer the query. Johanna Drucker, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, is both a radical art scholar as well as a practicing book artist. She's the keynote speaker for the symposium, along with Warren Lehrer, a writer, designer and photographer. For their presentations, Drucker focuses on book artists' investigations of the double helix of personal and public terror and love. Lehrer's talk focuses on the war on language and culture since Sept. 11.
The symposium also features local artists and writers offering hands-on workshops, like Alexander's alliterative "Polymer Plate Print Press Poetry Party," or Frances Sjoberg's exploration of material constraints in "Form is Content." Participants also get to touch a selection of artists' books from the Center for Creative Photography with librarian Miguel Juaréz.
The symposium is neither an outgrowth of nor impetus for the UAMA exhibit. They were always planned in tandem. As Charles Alexander wandera through the books on display, he points out one of his favorites--Xu Bing's Tobacco Project. It's a collection of cigarettes, nestled innocently in their opened cases, but with condemning words printed on each cigarette; the book of Tao is immaculately imprinted on narrow layers of yet-to-be wrapped cigarette labels; the color red abounds.
"It's an amazing batch of literary constructions associated with the tobacco industry. But it turns back to critique the industry. It's also about tobacco's global terrorism," Alexander explains.
"So much in book arts draws you to its intricacy," he adds, as is the case with local artist Karen Wirth's book, And Then You Were Gone.
"You look at this little white book. It has no text, just threads and holes and an outpouring of emotion as the threads spill over the edges of each page, and you wonder what it's saying," Alexander ponders.
"But it's obsessive in its rawness and intimacy."
Alexander's own entry in the show is seemingly quieter, less obsessive. Whilst Love and Terror Laid the Tiles is a sparse, 20-foot-long accordion-style book constructed of Japanese hand-made mulberry paper.
"I took the theme, love and terror, and tried to trace it through American poetry. So there's a line on each page, beginning with Anne Bradstreet and on towards Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also a line from Coltrane and some of my own poetry. Then I drizzled red acrylic paint, bloodlike, over each page. It's prettier than I expected, but has an eerie tone about it."
The exhibit's theme, as well as what an artist's book should look like, is broadly interpreted by the participating artists. Byron Clercx's is by far the most sculptural. His Forgery: Packing Kathy Acker greets you at the door: a hammer, whose handle is surreptitiously made from compressed book pages from Acker's often transgressive texts, is nested inside the red velvet-lined and studded vinyl covered heart-shaped case.
"Is it a book?" asks Alexander. "Yes," he answers his own question about its construction. "It has a gutter and margins."
Love and/or Terror Book Arts Symposium· Friday, Sept. 12, at 3:30 p.m.: Duane Michals' print viewing, book signing and lecture (Center for Creative Photography). Free. Friday, Sept. 12, 6:30 p.m.: reception at 6:30 p.m. (UA Museum of Art) Free. Saturday, Sept. 13, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.: Johanna Drucker and Warren Lehrer lectures, local book artists' workshops and panel discussion moderated by Charles Alexander.
Fees for the symposium are $70 general or $30 for students and UA staff. Registration takes place at Friday's events or at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday.
· The UA Museum of Art exhibit continues through Sept. 28. Museum hours are Tuesday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends, noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
· The UA Library's Special Collections: a selection of artists' books is on display through Sept. 30.
· Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan read from their multimedia artists' book and audio project, Crossing the Boulevard at Reader's Oasis (3400 E. Speedway Blvd.) on Sunday, Sept. 14, at 1 p.m.
For details on all these events, call 621-7567 or visit www.loveandorterror.arizona.edu.