Artists' books to see and, yes, touch

Posted: December 07, 2001

Exhibitions of artists' books, which are made as art, are typically frustrating experiences, because the books can't be handled and usually can't be displayed in a way that provides reasonable access.

However, the gallery at Arcadia University offers devotees of the genre full immersion, with the most imaginative and satisfying show of artists' books I've ever seen.

"Desire Admire Acquire" consists of 150 books published during the last 40 years, displayed on a table-high shelf that rings the gallery. Visitors are encouraged to flip through them.

The show isn't complicated; it seems intended to present a broad range of artists' books, excepting only those that are materially luxurious.

The books come from Printed Matter, a nonprofit organization in New York that promotes the appreciation and dissemination of such publications.

All are for sale, and about one-third already have been purchased (although they remain on view until the show closes). None costs more than $40.

Gallery director Richard Torchia chose books to be readily accessible, so most are primarily visual.

"Desire Admire Acquire" is a browser's paradise. Well-known artists such as Sol LeWitt, Karen Finley, Jenny Holzer, Ellsworth Kelly and Yoko Ono mingle with artists such as Emma Kay, whose Worldview tells the history of the world as she remembers it.

Many books are conceptual, and thus don't initially seem very substantive. David Blaney's Self-Taught features colored photographs of rubber bands. Christian Boltanski's book lists all the artists who participated in the Carnegie International exhibitions up to 1991.

If you spend enough time here - and that's very easy to do - you're bound to turn up some nuggets. Bill Owens' picturebook of suburbia, for one; Voyeur by Hans-Peter Feldman (photographs you can't help looking at) for another.

And if you're not familiar with the multifaceted world of artists' books, this show is a splendid way to enter it.

Arcadia University, 450 S. Easton Rd., Glenside. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 18. 215-572-2131 or www.arcadia.edu/gallery.

A voice in the dark. Fasten your seat belt - Lee Bul is taking you for a ride. You'll never leave the gallery at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, but you'll be transported, if not to other worlds, then at least to other states of mind.

The vehicle is "Live Forever," a video fantasy built around three sleek capsules that look like low-slung sports cars. They are, in fact, karaoke booths - the artist calls them "pods" - in which one sits and croons along with projected video lyrics and related images.

The videos are projected on small screens inside each pod, and also on a gallery wall. One program combines love songs and giggling teenage schoolgirls, another glittering urban scenes with songs about city life, and the third tunes about journeys juxtaposed with scenes at a hotel lounge.

"Live Forever" expresses the Korean-born artist's belief that every human life is accompanied by a "soundtrack" shaped by memory and desire. The karaoke pods allow visitors to give that soundtrack a voice that only the singer can hear.

That might be Lee's intention, but the effect is quite different. Sealed into a white fiberglass pod inside a darkened, windowless room, the visitor is doubly isolated from reality and committed to self-absorption.

It's like being in a gambling casino, where any sense of time or other natural rhythms are blocked out. Sitting in the pod singing along with a video represents a sad simulation of real experience.

While it's an impressive marriage of light, sound and machines, Lee's installation ought to be called "Suspended Animation Forever." Every minute spent in the gallery seems like an hour, and vice versa. What a relief it is when one returns finally to the natural world.

Fabric Workshop, 1315 Cherry St.

9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Through Jan. 5. 215-568-1111 or www.fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.

Still, in motion. In her large landscape photographs at Locks Gallery, Eileen Neff creates some intriguing perceptual puzzles. All the images are landscapes photographed from moving trains, then computer-manipulated and combined to produce startling anomalies.

For the viewer, the anomalies aren't blatant. They involve distinguishing what one might expect to see from what the artist has recorded, and guessing what might be concealed.

Neff asks us to consider whether absolute reality exists in such circumstances, or whether imagination, memory and individual idiosyncracies always alter the scene.

The anomalies generally involve focus and reflection. Most of the images contain some blurring; in the most intriguing pictures, the blurring is selective. In Newton's Field, for instance, we see the foreground in sharp focus and the background as a yellowish-green smudge.

Similar incongruities occur with reflection. In Almost (No. 1), for instance, the top half appears to be reflected in a body of water that constitutes the bottom half, but the halves don't correlate.

Neff makes her photographs with a conventional camera, then scans the images into a computer for editing. She finishes them as conventional color prints that range in size from roughly 3 1/2 feet by nearly 5 feet to a wall mural 12 by 17 feet.

Her method produces many surreal dislocations. They range from the startling realism of Almost (November 21, 2000), two contrasting scenes butted together as if one were a reflection of the other, to the near-complete abstraction of This and That, wavy vertical threads of pure color.

Neff's pictures reminded me of the Belgian surrealist RenĀ Magritte, whose paintings posed similar contradictions.

Because the photographic manipulations are more ambiguous and subtle, they're more effective in persuading the viewer to accept what he or she sees as plausible - that what we see might not be rational but it is theoretically possible.

Locks Gallery, 600 Washington Square South. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Through Dec. 22. 215-629-1000 or www.locksgallery.com.

Edward J. Sozanski's e-mail address is esozanski@phillynews.com.

The Art listings begin on Page 35.

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