01 Mar 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

At the 2018 CBAA conference, I presented alongside AB Gorham, Woody Leslie, and Levi Sherman. Our panel, “Half the Field: Writing and the Artist’s Book,” addressed writing from historical, pedagogical, personal, and practical perspectives.

We addressed how art world institutions like exhibitions, submissions, websites, and critique can better serve the writing produced in our field. Critique epitomizes many of the problematic dynamics and brings to the fore interesting theoretical implications of these tensions. Books that must be read by one person at a time pose obvious challenges to a typical critique format, especially if they contain written content. In contrast, writing students come to class having already read the piece or pieces that will be workshopped. I believe book art classes can adapt the workshop approach to critique, especially to develop artists’ writing practices. The difficulties posed by this translation reveal fascinating fault lines in the theoretical terrain – the inextricable integration of the artists’ book, the material presence of language, and so on.

Writing has much to offer book arts education beyond critique, or more accurately, before critique. We must begin by questioning our prioritization of the visual. Not only will stronger writing create a stronger book, but writing can offer a reader a familiar access point into a piece. Certainly novels are more familiar than artists’ books to most viewers. People broadly have an understanding of how books work: of chapters, paragraphs, sentences. Sadly, that is not always the case for visual art. As an instructor, I work to improve my students’ visual literacy, but in the meantime, as a writer, I can demonstrate why an understanding of narrative technique improves artists’ books.

Tension and conflict drive a book. Linguistic play can delight a reader, but a reader craves momentum. We will read until there is equilibrium, we will read until we find an answer. In a narrative piece, this is as simple as ensuring a character or narrator wants something as soon as they’re introduced. A conflict need not be violent or dramatic. People create their own internal conflicts simply through their desires. These conflicts and tension are amplified by obstacles.

Without a traditional narrative, an artist no longer asks, what does the character want. The question is: what is preventing an equilibrium? The tension here may be the very relationship between the reader and the book. The book may be ergodic—resisting the reader—but such occurrences should be intentional and controlled. Unnecessary resistance becomes merely tedious. The tension propelling the book may also be in relationship between the visual and written components. Whether narrative or not, a book, as a time-based experience, requires propulsion. This may mean resisting the satisfaction of a perfectly resolved spread, since it is the quest for resolution that will drive the reader to turn the page.

Considering narrative transformation will also help create, or workshop, an artist’s book. In a traditional narrative, a character goes through a transformation. If they do not, a larger point is made, which in itself is a transformation of an idea. These types of changes are satisfying to a reader. However, there are many types of transformation that both satisfy and provide revelations to a viewer. Depicting one perspective and then engaging with another is a change that provides a revelation to the reader. Breaking boundaries is another way to create this effect. In novels, the boundaries are metaphorical or situational: a castaway escapes an island, someone escapes a small town. In an artist’s book, these boundaries can be both written and physical, strengthening this element. Images and writing can bleed off the page, pages can be unfolded, they can be ripped. When done with intention and ordered for emphasis, these moves can satisfy the viewer.

These literary lessons highlight the shared vocabulary of visual and written art. Consider overlapping terms like ‘tone,’ ‘organic,’ or even ‘depth’ with different meanings in each context. It’s easy to forget that flat characters or the weight of a line are metaphors. This can make critique and discussion confusing for some students, but this act of translation can also lead to important discoveries in the messy overlap of connotations and meanings.

Carley Gomez is a PhD candidate in Fiction and a Gus T. Ridgel Fellow at the University of Missouri. She has an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her fiction has been published in Passages North and Euphony Journal.

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