The English visionary artist William Blake introduced book arts as it is known today by his integration of text, image and form in the late 18th century. These key concepts of artists’ books can be seen in U.N.O. Professor Bonnie O’Connell’s exhibition What Metaphor Allows/ Collage, Books, Assemblage presently on view in the Sunderland Gallery, St. Cecelia’s Cathedral.
“I’m continually discovering and learning about processes and the great tradition of art making,” O’Connell said in a recent interview. “This dialogue with artists of the past feeds the mind and lets me know how others have drawn from that well.”
The work on display illuminates O’Connell’s passion for handmade objects and their capacity to communicate observations about the human condition. “Since teaching book arts full time, I’ve been equally drawn to the expressive sculptural potential of book forms,” O’Connell wrote in her Artist’s statement. The sculptural book form “Swirling Swabs” 2009, began with the question, “How thick can I sew a book?” she explained in a recent interview. Hung from the ceiling, “Swirling Swabs” appears to coil and recoil. The color and texture of the overall piece simultaneously attracts and repels, potentially challenging a viewer’s imagination.
“I began by making small pages on long cordage,” she said during a gallery visit. “I made three or four variations. By sewing to the limit, I discovered a coiling possibility. U.N.O. had boxes of donated Q-tips. It was a challenge to use as many as possible in the spaces. Most craft bookbinding is like carpentry. Everything is linked so it holds together. Glue is never used. In classical bookbinding the folds are sewn through.” Looking more closely at the pockets in “Swirling Swabs” is a different sensation than looking at it from a distance. Each section of the handmade paper is sewn to hold one Q-tip.
O’Connell teaches book arts classes at U.N.O. as well as directing The Fine Arts Press. Her edition and unique books carry more literal content than “Swirling Swabs.” Three in the exhibit are altered books; “Men” 2010, “Women” 2010, and “Men and Women” 2010. “An altered book is a violation of its text,” she said during the interview. Reusing volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, 1957-1952, she chopped the spine of the originals and reconfigured them to make a statement about gender roles. The illustrations are grouped in frames, trimmed with decorative devices used in metal type. Each of the volumes is compacted, dense with gender stereotyping evoking scenes from the TV series “Mad Men.” The style and cropping of the illustrations creates an atmospheric sense of social mores from the 1960’s.
One of the pleasures of holding books is discovering them page by page, a pleasure denied with the plexiglas covers over each book. The necessity of these covers though, does not diminish an appreciation for the labor intensive qualities of O’Connell’s craftsmanship. “The three volumes were designed to reuse the original book covers,” she said at the Gallery. “There are two copies of each volume, each one unique. The book block for each was sewn separately, and the cover sewn to each block. “
There are two more thematic series in the exhibition which highlight her current interest in jesters, clowns, and fools. What began as a papermaking demonstration in a class she was teaching resulted in three clown pulp pieces. “Fear of Clowns” focuses on a specific condition coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. It’s a good example of pulp painting incorporating letterpress. The collaged red checker nose and devil dog eyes make for a formidable image. If you weren’t scared of clowns already, you might be after seeing this portrait.
“Ying/Yang Clown” appears more reflective, able to be the “mutable clown and scapegoat.” The letterpress poetry on either side balances a collaged ruffle using Chinese characters making this clown a richly layered statement. “On the Way to Wisdom” uses the text of a truism to deftly balance color, shape, and texture. Erica Jong’s quote, “No one ever found wisdom without also being a fool” gracefully caps the positive/negative relationships of this particular clown’s face. The presentation of the three clowns hanging side by side underscores O’Connell’s superb craftsmanship and skill as a designer. The three pieces together are an orchestration of image and material.
The four diamond shaped mirrored collages hung in the far end of the gallery are inspired by the Commedia dell'arte, a form of 16th century Italian theater characterized by improvisation. Its descendant, the Harlequinade is a slapstick variation involving five main characters, Harlequin, the comedian and romantic male lead, Columbine, the lovely young woman, Clown, the buffoon, Pantaloon, the greedy father of Columbine, and Pierrot, the comic servant also known as Zanni.
Understanding the history and context of the titles of this four part series enhances the experience of seeing O’Connell’s interpretive imagination at work. Using vintage postcards with collage, each image contains art historical, literary, or theatrical references. The titles alone evoke an imaginative narrative; “Harlequins Invade Paris”, “Columbine Gets a Late Start”, “The Ladies Entertain a Zanni”, and Pierrot’s Moon.” The mirrored surfaces add another layer of ambiguity to the metaphorical density of this series.
Different pieces offer other considerations of theme, narrative and materials. The letterpress print “The Murdered Come Out at Night” is particularly affecting, its pathos palpable. Done as part of an invitational portfolio with 39 other artists, the print commemorates the Baghdad Booksellers and other victims of the March, 2007 Mutanabbi Street bombing. The 1960 poem by Saadi Yousef has been designed, handset, and printed by O’Connell. It is published by Penumbra Press, her private press imprint. Her letterpress prints and books are always an experience to look forward to.
O’Connell’s work is informed by an energetic intelligence at the service of impeccable craftsmanship. The depth and breadth of her incisive regard for the tactile qualities of a handmade object come alive in this exhibition.
Bonnie O’Connell; What Metaphor Allows/ Collage, Books, Assemblage; Sept.16 – Nov.29, 2012, Sunderland Gallery in the Cultural Center of St. Cecelia Cathedral, 3900 Webster Street, 402.558.3100, http://www.cathedralartsproject.org/