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Volumes: The work of five Minnesota artists who use books as the departure point for creative inquiry

Adelheid Fischer

Critic Lucy Lippard wrote that you can recognize an artist’s book “because you’ve never seen anything quite like it in bookstores or libraries.” Volumes, an exhibition on view in the Minnesota Gallery through April 23, is certainly a case in point. Five local artists, working in media as diverse as painting, sculpture, photography, and video, “dismantle” the book, using its history, meanings and physical structure as metaphors or actual building material.

The artists’ work fall along a communications continuum that begins with prehistory and ends with the book’s revolutionary progeny—television. As a group the works point to a historical “disembodiment” of information, in which ideas are divested of their physicality and relayed through series of complex electrical pulses, no more substantial than thought itself. Three artists—Harriet Bart, Sandra Taylor, and Jeff Wilcox—stand along the earliest end of that continuum, recalling the books’ ancient antecedents. Two others—Karen Wirth and Robert Lawrence—look at what’s happened to the communication of culture in the face of the electronic revolution.

Wirth looks at the layered confluence of visual, verbal and physical information on our experience of the world. Her work, an eight-inch paper cube titled You Are Here, unfolds as four arms that extend five feet each into north, south, east, and west directions. Each terminal represents a different destination: a garden, sculpture garden, music pavilion and river. Using the format of an interpretive nature trail, viewers “travel” over a topographical map that examines the ways in which abstractions, such as words, language symbols and reproduced images, become substitutes for real objects.

The north quadrant that leads to a sculpture garden, for example, features exercises in visual and verbal plays on the subject of rocks. Like signposts bearing cues, samples of marbleized Formica lead into a succession of Xeroxed photos that begin with a hand holding a rock, to close-ups of rocks and finally to microscopic views of rock crystals. Real objects, such as metal pellets, serve as stand-ins for actual rocks. These physical signifiers are juxtaposed with pictures of sign-language symbols and Morse-code dots. “The piece constantly flip-flops between paper symbols and imagery and tangible objects related to the paper symbol,” she says. Carrying these layers of abstraction one step further is a series of slide projections that serves, Wirth says, as an “interpretation of an interpretive nature trail.”

The slide presentation points to one of the most important questions that the entire exhibition asks of viewers. Increasingly, our knowledge of things is several steps removed from any physical interaction with the real world. Rather, we often interact with electronic representations of things. And not only do we receive that information with a greater anonymity but we receive it with phenomenal speed from every corner of the globe. What implications does this have for how we make sense lf the world and the possibilities for effective action within it?

Abridged from ARTS Magazine: The Magazine for Members of The Minneapolis Institute of Art, April 1989