Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - September 27, 2013

Worlds within books

A book can be a sculpture, an oil painting, a pinhole camera in the hands of an artist

by Rebecca Wallace

Any devotee of reading will tell you there are worlds to be traveled inside book covers. Artist Emily Payne turns the covers themselves into new worlds.

At the entrance of the Palo Alto Art Center, Payne's "Atlas" series floats in the breeze, with globes like wind mobiles crafted from wire. Old book covers and tracing paper create opaque, glowing panels in the wire spheres, almost like stained glass but much more delicate.

Over and over, Payne makes use of book covers in her art. Other installations now up at the art center include "Water Line," with covers and linings cut away to create curving wave shapes; and the rectangular patterns of "Level," also fashioned from covers. It's not that she doesn't enjoy reading. But as a visual person, she's drawn more to the colors and fabrics of volumes.

"Everybody has an association with books. They're precious objects," she said. "But here I am cutting them up and taking them apart and giving them this new life beyond the book form."

Besides, these books tend to be the ones nobody else wants. Payne finds most of her materials at library book sales, checking out the leftover piles on the last day.

Payne's affinity for old-fashioned printed books has her in good company these days at the art center. Her installations are part of a group exhibition called "Bibliophilia" that opens this Saturday, featuring Payne and 14 other artists: Robert Dawson, Ala Ebtekar, Lisa Kokin, Tony May, Laurent de Brunhoff, Ginger Burrell, Xiaoze Xie, Patricia Curtan, Adam Donnelly, Belle Yang, Christopher Reynolds, Andrea Higgins, Scot Velardo and Catherine Wagner.

The artists are showing new art books they've created, as well as art made from discarded books. Some works are inspired by literature in a different way: Stanford photography instructor Dawson has images of libraries from his survey of the United States' public libraries, in which he's photographed hundreds of libraries since 1994. Here, viewers can see his images of a beat-up Detroit branch, an art-filled Vermont library space, and a small California library built by former slaves.

On his website, Dawson writes about the project: "A public library can mean different things to different people. For me, the library offers our best example of the public commons. For many, the library upholds the 19th-century belief that the future of democracy is contingent upon an educated citizenry."

Some of the artists imagine their own additions to old books, like Velardo, who covers them with new oil paintings, and Higgins, who supplements a 14th-century Japanese memoir with paintings of the kimono fabrics she envisions the protagonist wearing. Others transform them: Donnelly turns books into pinhole cameras, and Ebtekar fashions pages into a Persian celestial atlas. This is more than a simple discussion of whether ebooks are making the printed ones obsolete; it's a broad-brush look at what books can and could mean to us, inside and out.

People can get as attached to food as they can to the food for thought in books, and two of the artists are showing pieces that tie both things together. Curtan has created Chez Panisse menus and illustrated cookbooks; here she shows new pen-and-ink drawings. And Reynolds goes in a different direction by coating cookbooks in MSG and then preserving the resulting book-blocks in epoxy.

The art center is putting on this show together with the Fine Arts Gallery of San Francisco State University. In September and October, the university will have a concurrent exhibition up: "The Illuminated Library," including such artists as Clare Rojas and Nina Katchadourian.

The pairing reflects the fact that the Bay Area is a hot spot for book arts. Payne says there's a wealth of teachers and artists focusing on the art form. The area's longstanding literary tradition doesn't hurt, either. She cites the San Francisco Center for the Book and Foothill College's print and book-arts program as two thriving centers.

"The Center for the Book came into being while I was in grad school (at San Francisco State, in printmaking and book arts)," Payne said. "There was a real surge of interest in the book form, and that's continued."

Though this is her first gallery show in Palo Alto, Payne has deep roots in the Bay Area. She grew up in Mill Valley and lives in Berkeley; her work has been seen at venues including the SFMOMA Artists Gallery. "Hover," one of her wire-sculpture installations, is on permanent display at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Palo Alto, floating in the air like the "Atlas" pieces.

"The wire work that I do is very much about sculpture in a dynamic relationship with the space that they're in. Those spheres exist on their own, but once you hang them and light them, they cast these shadows on the back wall ... and it's supposed to feel kinesthetic and alive," she said.

Visitors to the art center will get to interact with Payne's art more directly on Oct. 11, when she leads artmaking activities at the opening reception for "Bibliophilia." She's planning to bring in book covers along with fabric, paintbrushes and other materials to give visitors a chance to try out what she does. All ages are invited.

Opening activities will run from 6 to 9 p.m. and also include a performance by Conspiracy of Beards, an a cappella Leonard Cohen tribute group of which artist Velardo is a member.

Several other free events are also planned at the art center. Artist Curtan will give an artist's talk on Nov. 15 at 7 p.m., with Dawson taking his turn on Dec. 11 at 7. On Nov. 9, a group discussion called "Cultivating Collaborations" will feature people from the art center and San Francisco State's Fine Arts Gallery. "Bibiliophilia"-themed art activities for kids are planned for Holiday Family Day from 2 to 4 p.m. Dec. 7.

Separately, Bay Area Book Artists hosts the Book Arts Jam show and sale at Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Community Center at 1305 Middlefield Road on Oct. 19. Details are at bookartsjam.org.

Info: "Bibliophilia," is at the Palo Alto Art Center at 1313 Newell Road from Sept. 21 through Dec. 1, with artist talks and activities. Open hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursdays until 9 p.m.) and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Go to cityofpaloalto.org/artcenter or call 650-329-2366.

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