"Some books are to be tasted," Francis Bacon once wrote, "others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."
But had Bacon lived to see "Bookworks: Washington, D.C.," now at the WPA, he would have needed some new categories. Many of these books have no words, some have no pictures, and some aren't even books at all, but sculptural objects.
Over the past decade, artists around the world have been discovering in the book format a new visual mode of expression. So it is not surprising that when the WPA (1227 G St. NW) decided last fall to undertake a series of artist-curated shows, notebook artist H. Terry Braunstein was asked to organize the first.
"Bookworks: Washington, D.C." is the result, 65 works by 30 area artists currently working in the book format. The show has turned out to be a bustling microcosm of what's going on in that medium all over the world, and brims with variety, imagination, humor and lots of first-rate new talent. WPA, on a shoestring, had once again put other area art institutions to shame.
"When I began," says Braunstein, "I only knew of three or four artists who were working in this format." Phone calls to every gallery in town and to several artists, however, produced the hidden lode. "I still have to keep reminding myself that all of these artists live and work in Washington," says Braunstein.
About half the books in the show -- and some of the most provocative ones -- are one of a kind, many of them qualifying most precisely as "book objects," or sculpture. Lucy Spencer's rusted, welded steel piece, "The First Book," for example, is her idea of what the first book might have looked like freshly delivered up from the ruins of the past.
Betsy Packard, along with other artists, begins with real books and alters them, as in "Continental Shelf," carved from a stack of old National Geographic magazines. Her amusing "Pulped Book" is made from a book whose innards have been melted down to their original pulp form. Sirpa Yarmolinsky's sophisticated work combines tar paper, rope, goat hair and metallic paint to conjure all manner of dark thoughts.
More and more, artists' books are being printed in limited editions, either in experimental offset techniques or in color Xerox. Several examples from the Writer's Center at Glen Echo Park suggest a buzz of worthwhile activity there, including Kevin Osborne's oddly shaped "Repro-Memento" based on the Washington Monument. Osborne's working notes, half-tone positives and plates, are on view in WPA's window. He also designed the show's imaginative bookmark-shaped invitation.
Alec Dann, also from Glen Echo, relates photographs and text in books editioned on photographic paper, preserving the feel of that medium.
"Breakup in March" is but one of several strong works by this artist. Pat Dalzell also effectively holds up the spectre of passing years in her striking "Time to Time," the first book you see upon entering the show.
Color Xerography has become a major factor in works done in the ring-binder format, the most enchanting example being Carol Blizard's "Comprehensive Manual of Plant Care," which outlines, in hand-colored, Xeroxed pages, "a systematic guide to the torture of houseplants." It includes "punishments and tortures" as follows: "Put the plant in front of the TV and bore it to death," or "Threaten to drop it from a great height." The next page instructs, "Show it exactly how high." That book, made in an edition of 25, costs a mere $40.
There are endless other combinations of media, involving rubber stamps, construction paper, collages, drawings and etchings, some with words, some without. Happily, Cynthia Bickley, who is seen far too rarely these days, has turned up some fine work here, including a relevant quote:
"Pictures without words are mute. Words alone are senseless."
Agree or not, it is a thought that has prompted several artists to produce work as satisfying as any to turn up in Washington in a long time.
The installation, not incidentally, is the best for an artist's book show. Several of these works can be touched and the pages turned. One hardly notices that they have been discreetly attached to prevent pilfering.
But the instinct to take something home can be easily and inexpensively satisfied in the WPA's book shop which stands seductively at the end of the show.
For those who get hooked, there will be a free symposium at WPA on March 22 at 1 p.m., featuring the curator of New York's Franklin Furnace, the first American gallery to deal exclusively with contemporary artist's books. The show continues through March 29.
Terry Braunstein has gracefully left her own work out of the WPA show, but she is, in fact, the best known Washington artist working in the book format, and has been shown in major group shows here and abroad. The Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW, has assembled a retrospective of Braunstein's notebooks -- all 14 of them -- to coincide with her curatorial debut at WPA.
In another welcome installation, Washingtonians have, at last, been given the chance to sit down in a deliciously comfortable chair (designed by Peter Danko of Alexandria) and have a browse through the cut, pasted, sketched and penned chapters of Braunstein's on-going saga of a young woman's life.
Viewers are likely to enjoy most the notebooks that deal with experiences that coincide with their own, but there is a broad span. Staring with "Housewife's Ballet," the early works revolve around the home and family, and include amusing, ironic and often poignant juxtapositions of images cut from various women's magazines. A chart for a hopelessly complicated carpool evokes both a chuckle and sympathy, while a diagram of how to fold diapers kicks up other responses.
Braunstein's other concerns: "Pairs," with its mirrored cover, deals with relationships, while "Wrinkles," wrapped in wrinkled, crushed velvet, takes on the passage of time and comes to terms with it. "Monday Miracle," the most recent notebook, speaks of life's dreams and goals through the image of the beautiful but precarious bubble.
Throughout, Braunstein has continued to refine her chosen medium, and what was, in the beginning, largely a scrapbook idea which juxtaposed raw data, has now evolved into more profound, less obvious work. In "Monday Miracle," the most fulfilling work, the cutting is more complex than ever before, and far more concerned with visual impact.
The fact that these images stand on their own and still evoke a response, even without the narrative flow of the notebooks, is clear in the pairs of images Bruanstein has Xeroxed from her notebooks, matted and hung on the wall. "Old," from the book on "Wrinkles" needs no explanation. And through color Xerography, both Braunstein's notebooks and wall-hung works can now be bought and taken home.
In work that could not be more different from Braunstein's quiet, poetic ponderings, James Pernotto is making a noisy debut downstairs at Fendrick in a show of drawings and molded paper sculpture appropiately entitled "Gone Wild." Washington may well go wild over Pernotto.
Dealing not with the norm, but with the freaky fringes of life, Pernotto has here portrayed the bizarre denizens of the circus sideshow, using the blatant, kinky forms of Chicago art to do it.
"I've always been involved with excess, particularly the sideshow -- the fattest man and the skinniest," says the artist, who did this series of drawings two years ago and then set out to find an appropriate way to frame them. It is now impossible to imagine these portraits without their elaborate, brightly colored molded paper frames. In "Snake Charmer," for example, the surrounding interlocking serpentine forms both elaborate the basic theme and carry it right into the viewer's space.
"These works are about tensions, about 1984," says Pernotto. "I could have done punk-rock portraits or portraits of the saints and gotten the same ideas across." Some works do, in fact, have oddly religious overtones. "Wild Man of Borneo," with a ring in his nose and a lip-piece piercing his mouth, inevitably calls up the St. Sebastian legend. The frame is pierced by several arrow-like Popsicle sticks.
Likewise, the tall "No Evil Deed Lives On," a palindrome, sports a heroic, muscular figure wearing briefs studded with red stick-on stars -- "the sort they used to give to reward good work in parochial school," says the artist, who claims a local Catholic church has expressed interest in giving him a commission.
Pernotto shapes his cast-paper frames by carving the images from clay, and making plaster molds which he then fills with paper pulp. He has also made several wall-hung relief sculptures by this method, one of the most powerful being "Our Gary," based on the electrocution of Gary Gilmore. Though filled with violent lightning-bolt forms, certain passages in this work, notably an area with stars and stuck-on beads and sequins, is just plain beautiful.
"That piece is about a wasted life, about a man who was both murderer and victim," says Pernotto, who also points out that Gilmore was an artist of some talent. Even more violent is a huge piece called "Stay Pretty, Die Young," which seems about to explode off the gallery wall.
Pernotto came to Washington a year ago because his wife was offered a job as a computer programmer with Pepco, and he was lucky enough to find studio space with Sam Gilliam, whom he had met at Weege's Jones Road Print Shop in Wisconsin.
"It's worked out very well," says the former papermaker. "Washington has put an edge on my work that it's needed for a long time. When you're working on a form in Wisconsin, you don't have to think about much except keeping warm."
Pernotto and Braunstein will continue at Fendrick through April 5.