Not judging books by their covers

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Jacqueline van Rhine, curator of prints and photographs at the Print Center, has put together an exhibition of "artists’ books," being shown at Art in City Hall through Sept. 27. She puts a rather fine point on her opening statement by noting, "The definition of the artist’s book is contentious." The more direct point is there is no accepted definition of "artist’s book," thus making the approach to "Art on the Page: A Selection of Artists’ Books" problematic.

Still, Ms. Van Rhyn has selected some 14 pieces by 16 artists that are physical objects folks have declared art. "[It] presents the full range of artists’ books from the one of a kind to the pop-up to the low-cost edition," she says. "It also presents an equally diverse set of techniques and materials, including traditional letterpress, printmaking, handmade papers, wax, video production and even shutters."

One dealer in artists’ books approaches the subject cautiously: "Knowing what a controversial topic this is, it’s hard to begin. Artists’ books, obviously, are books made by artists. After that, the fur begins to fly when we get into defining artist –and by extension, art — and then defining ‘book.’"

For example, the object you’re holding in your hands right now, less than two feet from your face — The South Philly Review — physically produced by skilled, trained workers who are seeking a definite and definable end result — could be called art that is created by artists for the public. This makes everyone happy as in, "What’s not to like?"

One noted critic, Philip Smith, had coined two terms to deal with the subject. He recalled when reading Ulysses that James Joyce would refer to the "horseness of horses" or the "whatness of horses." This led to the terms "bookness" or "whatness of books."

Tired of all this? Me too.

For now, I accept the definition put forth by fine-arts people at Carnegie Mellon. "Artists’ books are time-based, visual art forms which transform our experience of the book as an ordinary medium. Made by individuals or groups of artists, these ‘books’ are created in every conceivable format, delve into all aspects of the human experience and, in the process, expand our imaginations."

At the risk of not taking all this seriously enough, the visual experience in the current Art in City Hall is rewarding. The second and fourth floors of City Hall’s northeast corner are hosting some extraordinary pieces of art, which are capable of not only capturing the imagination, but also holding one transfixed with swirling concepts.

Lois Johnson, a professor at the University of the Arts, calls herself "the cowgirl in the city," and creates depictions of city canyons with images of Philadelphia architecture. Her r�sum� is long and distinguished. Her work has been shown nationally. Mary Phelan is also on the faculty of the University of the Arts and Drexel University, and had exhibited around the country and internationally. She is the president of the board of directors of the Nexus Foundation for Today’s Art, and the proprietor of the Irish Pig Press.

Others in the show include Carol Barton, Virginia Batson (a South Philly resident), Denise Carbon, Jungohk Cho, James Engelbart, Suzanne Reese Horvitz, Robert Roesch, Martina Johnson-Allen, Barbara Lock, Claire Owen, Anabelle Rodriquez, Eriko Takahashi, Susan Viguers and Susan White. Many of these artists are engaged in teaching the various techniques they are showing. More than a few are affiliated with the University of the Arts.

Ms. van Rhyn notes that one of the similarities to the work is that it is meant to be handled and leafed through. "Though many exhibitions, including this one, unfortunately do not permit visitors to enjoy this unique experience, each book here is opened to a selected spread that gives visitors a glimpse of the work’s complex narrative."

Once again, it would appear the unique limitations of Art in City Hall’s glass exhibit cases have restricted the experience. However, once again, the unique mission of Art in City Hall allows visitors to see some of the best work of its kind in the country being produced by Philadelphia artists. As with a number of Art in City Hall’s programs, the importance is to provide a venue probably not commercially viable and probably not a museum crowd-pleaser, but definitely a showcase for extraordinary hometown artists.

Art on the Page: A Selection of Artists’ Books
Art in City Hall
15th and Market streets
Northeast corner
Through Sept. 27