Arts & Culture

Books as ‘vanishing subject and physical object’

In an era where many believe “the book is dead,” an exhibition at Light Art + Design in Chapel Hill about books becomes a memorial to the book or a celebration of it as a time-honored subject for art. Four artists — Jeff Joyce, Richard Baker, Joy Drury Cox and Duncan Hannah — who have had numerous solo shows and whose works are in significant collections, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, treat the book as a vanishing subject and as a physical object.

Using a format of polyptychs of watercolor and text fragments, Joyce, the show’s curator, examines the intersection of the landscape tradition and 19th century poetry, especially that of P. B. Shelley, and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. The small scale works refer to the “paysages intimes” (intimate landscapes) of the 19th century, the landscape as a private world and symbol of cultural yearning. In “O Time!” Joyce applies gouache and varnish to antique book papers and makes images which seem to be disappearing before our eyes. Looking carefully, we see the obscured phrase, “O time!.” Its fragility speaks to the past; there is no present.

Richard Baker paints trompe l’oeil book covers saluting writers who were instrumental in forming his worldview. There is “Rebel Without A Cause” in a black cover emblazoned with yellow block letters, and Gertrude Stein’s, “The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas,” a picture of a copy of a well-loved edition, although dog-eared with a ragged spine. If any images speak to the love of books and the fear that the transformative power of literature will disappear, it is these paintings.

Torn pages from books and newspapers have been used as elements of collage since it was invented by Picasso early in the 20th century; they were usually added as found objects to an abstract design or to mark something from the real world when the viewers understood the rest of the painting was the result of the imagination of the artist. Hannah makes collages from old books that are about books; he also creates imaginary Penguin cover designs and inserts them as collage elements. One of his compositions features D. H. Lawrence’s first novel, “The White Peacock”; the added collage bits and pieces reinforce the subject. Among his other paintings is “Girl With Green Eyes,” which balances a Modigliani reproduction with the frontispiece of Edna O’Brien’s, “Girl With Green Eyes.” Juxtaposing remnants of books with well-known art images into new compositions is not new, but is especially eloquent in this show.

Cox has chosen two books, both by Melville, to create paintings and books as objects. On a pedestal she has a boxed edition of her version of “The Old Man and the Sea,” and several printed copies of that book. “I decided to map out the periods in my edition of “Old Man and the Sea,” Cox writes in her artist statement. She has done this with each of the 118 pages of her copy, which she describes as a small paperback with a torn front cover and yellowed pages.

As she zigzags across each page the images become jagged designs, the meaning of which is just out of reach. Her pages become abstractions as she looks back on a time when books and authors were objects to be loved and cherished. She also looks for hidden designs in “Moby Dick.” Here, she follows the punctuation on each of its pages with miniscule dots. It is not unusual to be able to map inner designs in literature; the author is unaware of it, but words written well have a rhythm of their own. I heard an opera expert talk about the way the librettist translates literature inCindy Spuriato music; in this case he was explaining how “Cold Mountain,” the novel, was turned into “Cold Mountain,” the opera. He read phrase after phrase of passages that slowed, paused, then quickened exactly like a musical score. Cox has printed these books in small editions and placed them on pedestals as art objects. Her photographic prints of the authors Melville, Camus and Hemingway are ghostly, as if time has made it impossible for even the camera to fix them and they will fade away.

, the director of Light Art + Design, has known Joyce through his connections to Chapel Hill which go back to the late 1970s and his earned BFA from UNC-Chapel Hill. It was a natural choice to ask him to be the curator because he knew artists who were working in this genre. She also knew Cox, a member of the university’s art department who teaches photography and drawing, and of her interest in the book. It was a natural to put the two together and the show rounded out at four.

She showed me through the exhibition and said it was an extension of her works-on-paper show earlier in the year and a way to reach out to the university community. “We have designated 2017 as the year to connect with the UNC community,” she said, “so we will host this year’s faculty show and we have already sponsored an auction for the MFA students,” Spuria said. “I think the concept of the book as subject and object is catchy,” she added.

Making pictures about books and authors who have made it into the anthologies of Western literature seems to be about memories. The thoughtful, slow, reflective book requires the traditional author and a reader who is willing to give the hours necessary to know a book. Reading a book looks like work; it does require quiet and concentration and, in today’s world, there is no time. People are reading but they do it differently; they read in snatches literally standing on one foot. And yet people still buy books, witness the successful book sale in Raleigh just last week. To alter a Mark Twain quote slightly, “Perhaps reports of the death of the book have been exaggerated.”

Blue Greenberg may be reached at


WHAT: “Bookish: Celebrating the book, both as subject matter and physical source material in contemporary visual art”

WHERE: Light Art+Design, 601 W. Rosemary St. Suite 110, Chapel Hill

WHEN: Through June 3.