LIVING WITH ART, PART 3 //Aaron Cohick

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

These posts are an imaginative exercise, coming out of things I’m thinking about in my own work, and in conversations with other artists. (In particular with Bill Hanscom—I owe him a “thank you” for one of the prompts to write these posts.) I want to envision a studio practice, for a book artist, where aesthetic concerns, specific interests in content and concept, ethical/political concerns, and economic concerns can find perhaps not a perfect balance, but at least a stable ground for continued negotiation.

In 2005, while I was in graduate school, I made a 180 page image/text altered book called Art Into Life. It was very much in the spirit of the ur altered book, A Humumenteach page hand drawn/painted/collaged, plus some digital printing done with a desktop laser printer. As I reflect on the books that I’ve made, there are two that feel like the most significant: that altered book and the ongoing, iterative The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press. One of those exists as editions of 250 over three iterations, and one of those exists as a single copy that has probably been read through by 35 people. Both books exist perpetually as digital facsimiles, and are theoretically available to be read at any time. Digital facsimiles seem like a good compromise between the logistics of keeping a book in (letterpress) print and/or the problems of attempting a straight facsimile of a unique book, but the “out of sight” availability of the digitally archived object remains very different from the availability of having the book in the home. The process of making that altered book, of composing page-by-page (like writing a book?) was extremely satisfying and the results felt quite different from the usual tightly planned and executed book productions that I’ve otherwise done. How can an artist get to that open-ended process without being stuck having to sell unique books to single collectors or institutions, also usually for less money than a single, large painting? Is a digital facsimile, 3-5 readers, and a day job enough?

It could be useful to think about the relationship(s) between comics and artists’ books. They are essentially the same material: text and image, in relation, in sequence. Yet they seem to exist in (mostly) separate worlds. I think that book artists can learn a great deal from comics—formal/structural things like how to deal with story and structure, timing, rhythm, etc., and also nuts and bolts things like how the work gets made, and how it makes its way out into the world.

The recent graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris, is an incredible read, and I highly recommend it. It is also an interesting book to consider in terms of the relationship between artists’ books and comics. One of the conceits of the narrative is that the book itself is the journal/sketchbook of the main character, and as such it reproduces the look of a notebook. There are blue ruled lines on the pages, and the images and text are composed freely—there is little literal use of the panels that usually undergird the language of comics, though the idea of the panel is still very much embedded in the story-telling. It’s an intensely beautiful book—the reader can spend a great deal of time just looking and looking at the incredible drawings. The quality of the reproduction of those drawings is top-notch. It’s a long, dense book too, 386 pages. And it only costs $40.

Is a $40 copy of My Favorite Thing is Monsters a facsimile of an artist’s book? Or an original artist’s book? Or just a book? Where is the production and where is the reproduction? Does it even matter?

I am an artist that makes books by hand, I’ve been doing it for 18 years, and yet I’ve read a lot more comics than I have artists’ books. That could just be my reading habits, but it also probably has to do with the availability of comics. They are out there, published on the web, able to be ordered from the web, on the shelves of libraries, and often even in bookstores. (To be clear I’m not talking about standard “superhero comics” from the big publishers of such things. I’m talking about the weird, experimental, personal, literary, poetic, and/or journalistic comics of which there are many incredible examples.) Comics are labor-intensive to produce, and money-and-labor-intensive to reproduce and distribute—yet they are available, and they do make it into people’s homes, and they are read.

Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.


  • 04 Sep 2018 12:26 PM | Susan Viguers
    I have meant to comment on Aaron’s posts before this. In his August 1 post he writes of the value (possibly, even the necessity) of living with a book, a point with which I agree. But that doesn’t necessarily mean owning it, any more than it’s necessary to buy a novel rather than take it out from a library. I have a vague (possibly mistaken) memory of some European country or city in which artist book are circulating library books. That, of course, eliminates the most gorgeous labor-intensive artist books, but not necessarily some, even small, limited editions. I, for one, would love many of my artist books to be circulating books and would feel that their physical disintegration would be a small price to pay for getting an audience.

    Moving to Aaron’s current post, how do people feel about Lauren Renniss’s Radioactive and Thunder and Lightning? They surely seem like artist books to me — books in which image and structure are as important as text, indeed, the text is inextricably interconnected with them. They, however, were published by Harper Collins and Random House. My Favorite Thing is Monsters is published by Fantographics Books — isn’t that a commercial press ? — and, it would seem, commercially distributed. (I heard a review on NPR.) All 3 books are inexpensive. My guess is that all 3 are artist/writer driven (to recall one of Johanna Drucker’s essential questions defining an artist book). I feel sad about losing evidence of the hand, but is it possible for book artists to access the commercial publishing (and distributing!) route? How? Perhaps with a certain kind of comic book, Fantographic gives one the opportunity. But what about other kinds of books that also seem to me a kind of artist book?
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  • 10 Sep 2018 7:46 AM | Richard Minsky
    Like Susan, I've been intending to comment on Aaron's posts since the first one. I like all three posts—they address substantial theoretical questions about book art. The temporal issue presented in the first post is important. I am still thinking about some book art works viewed 50 years ago, like Lucas Samaras's "Book" (1968). The field evolves through this discontinuity of reading/processing, as new works are created incorporating notions embodied in books and reignited through conscious or subconscious connections. While writing this paragraph I saw for the first time a connection between that work and one that I did in 1981.

    The second post, on the three issues of affordability, availability, and accessibility of "democratic multiples," speaks of the Internet in terms of distribution. My view is that the Internet is a form of printing, of publication, and rendered the term "democratic multiple" obsolete in 1993 by making the artist book globally available free. That addresses all three issues.

    As Aaron points out via Lucy Lippard, the thorny issue isn't one of form, but of content. Even if the work is free, the reader needs to be able, or at the very least, WANT to absorb it. Of course most of the world has no interest in the content of most artist books, though it's likely that almost everyone would find at least one artist book that has content of interest to them. It's not just artist books, though, it's true of everything. All books, films, vegetables, modes of transportation, appeal to a limited audience. I'm happy if even one person is interested in something I do, and even if that one person is me. The "broader audience" isn't necessarily the audience for what one does. How many people understood or cared about Einstein's writing in 1915?

    The nice thing about the Internet is that if someone is at all interested in reading your book they can do lots of background work simultaneously on the same device if there is something in it they want to reference, during the discontinuous processing time Aaron wrote about in the first essay. And if the reader wants a printed copy of your book, they press a button and have it instantly.

    The third post brings up a pedagogic point that is important—the relationship of artist books to comic books and graphic novels. Aaron is correct. When teaching "The Experimental Book" at SUNY Purchase I had the students get two textbooks: "The Structure of the Visual Book" by Keith Smith and "You Can Do a Graphic Novel" by Barbara Slate. Having curated many book art exhibitions over four decades and seen thousands of artist's books, I observed that many of them looked interesting at first, but when I tried to read them they were boring. Storytelling is an important part of any book, whether literary, visual, or both. Students have to learn the basics of beginning, middle, end, and twist. Rising action, climax, and the other elements of a plotline. Creating a character—even if the character is an abstract visual element, an inanimate object, or a philosophical concept.
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