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"Metamorphosis: The Art of Altered Books" opens at Fuller Craft Museum
Andrew Hayes, Chase, 2016 Steel, book paper, paint, 14” x 9” x 3” Collection of the artist. Photo: Steven Mann.

BROCKTON, MASS.- Using printed material as a point of departure, contemporary artists transform existing books and reference volumes into sculptural objects using a variety of techniques. They gouge, carve, fold, paint, shred, pierce, tear, stamp, collage, gold-leaf, burn, glue, cut, and staple. The creative alterations shine with visual appeal and challenge our long-held perceptions about books. Artists featured in this exhibition: Long-Bin Chen, Andrew Hayes, Jacqueline Rush Lee, Jeremy May, and Wendy Wahl.

Since the 3rd millennium B.C., humans have transcribed language to chronicle histories, disseminate information, share philosophies, proclaim doctrines, and capture inspired tales, both large and small. As a result, the written word—composed on tablets, scrolls, books, and digital devices—has influenced cultural evolution across the globe and continues to do so today. In addition to serving as repositories of information, books have inspired the altered books genre (a parallel practice to artists’ books).

As the relatively obscure field attracts more and more professional makers, it bears noting that we all have engaged in book-altering to some degree. Who among us hasn’t highlighted sections, dog-eared pages, underlined passages, or jotted down notes in the columns? It is a way of personalizing what we read, facilitating literary absorption, and leaving traces of our engagement with texts that resonate. In addition to the intellectual and emotional connections, these objects offer a multitude of sensory experiences. We feel the heft of the object and the texture of the paper. We smell the pages and hear them being turned. We read the words with our eyes or our fingertips glide across the braille. This holistic relationship with the printed word drives artists to give books new life, reincarnating them as sculptural objects.

Some of the earliest writings were considered altered books, due in part to the laborious process required. For example, Greek scrolls were often resurfaced for multiple uses, causing the prior texts to bleed through the resurfaced piece of parchment, thus rendering it a “palimpsest.” But it was during the Victorian era that altered books became part of popular culture, as socialites compiled albums of images excised from catalogues or purchased as “scraps”—sheets of pictures intended to be cut up or placed in albums.

The mid-1960s were also pivotal to the altered books chronology. In 1966, British artist Tom Phillips transformed W. H. Mallock’s work “A Human Document” into his own creation entitled A Humament: A Treated Victorian Novel. By painting over the original text with gouache, Phillips revealed a stream of text that, supported by his added images, offered a fresh narrative, thus transforming Mallock’s conservative work into an irreverent tale of sex, misery, and bawdy dark humor. Phillips continues to alter his opus to this day, even sharing its ongoing metamorphosis via his website and a Humament app.

Today the field of altered books is positioned within a complex cultural landscape. As information is increasingly digitized, the threat of extinction for printed media looms. Are books becoming a thing of the past? Already we have witnessed encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauruses become relics of reference. As more and more readers opt to download their news, magazines, and novels onto electronic devices, the threat of obsolescence is real. And one that is not likely to wane.

The five individuals featured in Metamorphosis: The Art of Altered Books raise questions about this cultural evolution and the shifting ways in which we choose to receive information. Calling upon a range of techniques and inspirations, they defy our expectations with remarkable diversity in scale, color, subject matter, and media treatment. For some, the work is closely tied to the content of the source publications. For others, the book is simply raw material used to investigate formal concerns or to develop new narratives with no correlation between the author’s subject matter and the final creative output. Some sculptures visibly display the original text and images, while others obscure the text to the point of illegibility. In all cases, the creations stand as pathways to discover the expressive potential of these commonplace objects.

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