ART REVIEW : Never Judge a Book by Its Cover--if It Has One

They're called books, but you can't always read them. They're guaranteed never to turn up on a best-seller list. And sometimes they're not even made of paper.

These are "artists' books," invented in the 1960s when artists were discovering the creative possibilities of instant-copy machines and cheap offset-press printing. Since then, artists have been making "books" out of virtually every conceivable material, sometimes in formats that contain no covers or pages.

"Books Without Bounds," a massive exhibit of works by 60 artists at the Irvine Fine Arts Center through Jan. 14, is not likely to make the distinction any clearer.

Some of the books are bound works that can be picked up and leafed through. Other "books" hang on the wall, looking suspiciously like collages, or sit on the floor or dangle from the ceiling.

Still others really seem to be fine press books, the product of a venerable publishing tradition. Such limited edition volumes are distinguished from ordinary books by extraordinary attention to typefaces, paper stock and cover design.

But the bewilderingly vague definition of a little-known art form is only part of the problem with this exhibit. Judging by guest curator Judith Hoffberg's selection, bookmaking seems to attract disconcertingly wispy talents.

Many of the artist "authors" seem to forget how inundated we are with images in daily life. Only someone on a desert island could be expected to linger over pages and pages glopped up with photos or drawings that may or may not prove to be instructive, entertaining or insightful.

Some of the artists work in an extremely private vein, dwelling on obscure or minutely circumscribed themes, the significance of which remains a secret. Mary K. Mealiffe's "Hanafuda Fortune," for example, seems to be about a game involving flowers and little boxes to check off. But her introverted style of tiny images and scrunched-up script ward off a viewer's initial interest.

Other artists attempt social commentary in earnest but ham-handed ways. Reaching into a shopping bag to see what Gretel Stephens' "Household Words: A (New) Book" is all about, a viewer dredges up a bunch of small paper bags, each containing a household product tag. Snatches of handwritten dialogue, pop-up hillside houses and green snakes in Sheril Cunning's "Whose Land Is This Anyway?" are too cute and childish to work as an anti-development statement.

A depressing number of artists venturing into the "experimental" realm of book formats are mired in a banal, artsy-craftsy approach. Catherine Hanley's "Book of Hearts," a cobwebby construction studded with (what else?) hearts, and the numbingly cliched handprints in G.E. Bailey's "Do Not Touch" are among the offenders.

The artists who put the book format to more fruitful use generally stick to one clear-cut idea and locate the right tone to match the concept.

Kim Abeles uses an old book about excavations as the literal foundation for "Historic Sites, Buildings, etc." Opening the volume about halfway through, she "dug" a hole through the recto leaf and filled it with dirt revealing a vaguely humanoid, bottle-shaped imprint.

A little on the precious side, Joyce Cutler-Shaw's series of white-on-black photographs of birds' bones ("Alphabet of Bones") resembles an elegant calligraphy.

As if spoofing the feel-good ooze of a 30-second TV spot for soup or household cleanser, Judy Malloy's electromechanical book, "Saturday," flips at the touch of a button through photos of kids and cats tumbling around in idealized happy confusion.

An amusingly catholic interpretation of the idea of artists at work animates Carolyn Berry's book, "Artists of All Denominations," which includes photographs of a boy turning a chair leg in a woodworking class and a police artist, as well as a Rembrandt etching and a Friedo Kahlo self-portrait.

Some of the best pieces are the work of individuals who work within the "fine press" division of artists' books.

Carolee Campbell invites comparisons with the sensibility of the late artist Christopher Wilmarth (who created glass and print suites illustrating poems by Stephane Mallarme) in her interpretation of Guillaume Apollinaire's brief poem, "Mirror." Printed in French and English on V-shaped cut-out strips centered on a page backed by silvery paper with one word in each language per line, the format reinforces the crystalline style of the poet.

Susan E. King's accordion-folded book, "Lessons From the South," offers a potpourri of readable tidbits: sharp little anecdotes of a white, suburban childhood, a courtly old text on "the Confederate woman" and redneck quotes.

One of the books in Merida Burkhard's calligraphic "Homage to James Joyce" series consists in its entirety of a quote from Molly Bloom's famous "yes"-peppered soliloquy in "Ulysses" with the affirmative word leaping out in red from the unpunctuated black-lettered text.

Work of this caliber is the exception, however. In an exhibit of works overwhelmingly by women, it is troubling to see so many trite and half-baked pieces.

Some women artists believe that there is such a thing as "woman's art," a gentler, less assertive and bombastic thing than art made by men. The small-scale, intimate format of artists' books seems tailor-made for this sensibility. And the infinitely flexible nature of the medium seems likely to accommodate the smallest of domestic themes with ease.

But without wit, style and a keen sensitivity to the workings of visual metaphor, this is wallflower art, too placid or unoriginal to be noticed in a crowd.

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