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Maybe I wasn’t listening, but it took me a long time to realize that confusion and pleasure can coexist.

The world of artists’ books baffles me. A wonderful and invigorating bafflement, but a state of confusion all the same. I read the critics, and marvel at their ability to analyze and categorize, to see the big picture. I sometimes think I understand their words. But rarely am I satisfied. Granted, they have other concerns, but they don’t make things clear for me.

I am content in pleasure. And I feel guilt only infrequently about being comfortable with allowing personal pleasure to forge my taste in artists’ books.

The thing about artists’ book I find most enchanting — and valuable — is their infinite variety, their resistance to definition, mirroring the very human capacity for endless variation. No wonder the struggle to rein in the protean genre has been and will be ongoing.

It starts with the book, my personal sense of bookness. Starts. Then the fun begins. Different materials, different structures, different patterns, different sequences, different differences. Not merely containers of story and information. Singular works of art in which the physical — the materials, the structure, the manipulation — becomes integral. To borrow Barry Lopez’ image, this is where the goblet becomes the wine?

This variety is disorienting, but this confrontation with the new enlivens me. For me, it’s the difference between works X and Y that is vital. I find the similarities between them much less compelling, or interesting.

The moment of aesthetic focus is, I think, individual and ultimately personal. And artists’ books are the consummately personal art form. They’re made (mostly) for laps, and are often resistant to display. One individual turning, unfolding, and revealing allows access to their secrets.

Not that I enter the encounter without predispositions. I bow to experience, genes, culture, language, and other things I can’t imagine. But almost inevitably I’m in strange territory, the signposts vaguely familiar but unreadable:

I must learn anew how to proceed.

Alberto Manguel: "The viewers [of art] must turn away from the explicative labels, dismiss the helpful historical and geographical notes provided by the curator, forget the criticisms, the catalogue copy, the reviews, and stand in front of the work of art ready to not understand everything, in that half-comprehension of an aesthetic or emotional reaction, recreating, as far as possible, the mystery of creation."

I’m not sure about recreating the mystery of creation, but I do think definitions, however necessary, infect and limit.

Not knowing what I am holding, looking at, and manipulating is a privilege, a blessing akin to free-will. It allows and requires me, the single individual before the unfamiliar, to make it my own. In doing that, I may not be better, but I am changed.

I can only admire those who work to name a canon, to provide consistent terminology, to present a coherent front. But I don’t think they will help me the next time I look at Tim Ely. The accomplishments of criticism will, for me, always pale before the frission of the artists’ book experience, the disorienting Wow that disturbs me, unruts me, and centers me at the same time.

There is probably an evolutionary reason for our dis-ease with ambiguity — fight or flight doesn’t allow for reflection — but to get beyond surviving, to get to Faulkner’s prevailing, perhaps the disorienting confrontation with the new provides a path?

Too many powerful forces tell me who I am, who I should be, what I should crave. I take solace and refreshment from the moments of personal challenge and engagement when I am urged to create and understand at least part of my own world. At the very least, artists’ books are a vehicle for that.

So, I remain happy and wandering, comfortable with ambiguity, hopping from bafflement to bafflement, sensing that not knowing is a luxury.

Artists books — what pleasure.


A Personal Digression

by Bill Stewart

(1945 - 2019)

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