For their current exhibition, the ArtsTribe artists engaged in the ultimate in bad-kid behavior: tearing pages out of books, dunking them in water, pasting and painting and drawing on them.
“I went to a bookstore, and I was working on the project and tearing pages out of a book,” said artist Dana Slowiak, a Tribe member. “It was really fascinating to watch people’s reactions as you’re tearing a book apart.”
“Cover to Cover,” on display in the Playhouse Gallery in the basement of Overture Center, used books as building blocks, both as raw material and artistic inspiration. The show will be up through Nov. 5, after which it will tour to eight local libraries from Sun Prairie to Cross Plains.
ArtsTribe is a group of eight Madison-area artists who work in a variety of media, from encaustic (hot wax painting) to photography and printmaking. Nearly everyone ventured outside his or her comfort zones for this show, which launched in conjunction with the Wisconsin Book Festival. Photographer Angela Johnson made her own books; assemblage artist Karen Reppen made a “book worm” out of paperbacks that appears to crawl up the wall.
“Jayne Reid Jackson does these beautiful prints,” said Tom Linfield, a mixed media artist who makes pastels and mosaics. “In this show … she took a book and sliced it to pieces and put it in water, so she has this book that’s exploding out. It really challenged her as an artist to do something completely different, some 3-D work that she’d never done in the past.”
Past themes for the group have included music — in “Oh, Fortuna!” the artists responded to “Carmina Burana” — and plants, which inspired last year’s “SEED: Celebrating Art and Farming” at the Overture Center.
“Because we’re an eclectic group of artists, whenever we do an exhibition we (have) a theme specific enough and broad enough we can come at it from different aspects,” Linfield said. “We all are book lovers. One of us worked at the Madison Public Library. I was raised by an English literature professor.”
Linfield is intrigued by banned books, like “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “Slaughterhouse Five.” For his mixed media piece “Banned Book Reliquary,” he burned seven of his favorite novels that are among the most frequently banned, and put the ashes in glass jars.
Linfield and Slowiak’s “Scroll Series I” challenges the perceived influence and infallibility of print.
“We don’t really question a dictionary,” Linfield said. “So we dismantled the dictionary, waxed each sheet and we hung them all in a ring in the rotunda.”
Separately, Linfield and Jackson “reinterpreted” a classic text, “Janson’s History of Art,” a doorstopper that Linfield had to carry around as an art student.
“It’s a ripped up chronology of 2,000 years of art,” Linfield said. “It’s very much about the book, which is full of so many 1960s, bad, black and white images of what we know of our art history canon. … many people are exposed to art, not really through the art itself, but through reproductions of it.”
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Bobbette Rose, another artist in the group, makes abstract encaustic paintings. For “Cover to Cover,” she was inspired by poems and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” for some pieces; others, she described as “whiffs of thoughts,” suspended precariously from twigs. Her titles include “Libation,” “Life is War,” “Outside the Lines” and “I Rest.”
“They are, for me, snatches of words and thoughts, not full blown ideas,” Rose said. “I do keep a journal … (these are) echoes and quotes out of those pages.”
Rose was encouraged by the feedback she got during the “Cover to Cover” opening at Overture, which went beyond simple compliments to discussion of content. One couple, responding to “Life is War,” related the death of their son in Iraq and how their lives had changed.
“I was appreciative that people got into relating to what the work was stirring up inside them,” Rose said. “We had this conversation about … the complexity of the politics of war in our country right now.
“It was very affirming to me,” she added. “I felt honored these parents would share that with me, that my art could inspire that dialogue. Art is about dialogue and communication and storytelling.”
How such storytelling is changing in a world full of Kindles and iPads is something these artists are still exploring.
“It will be interesting to see if the book comes to be a relic thing,” Rose said, “valued more for its object-ness than to tell a story.”
Slowiak is confident the book form will survive, much as radio has after television became ubiquitous.
“A lot of the work in this show is much more about the tactile experience,” she said. “People are going to be fascinated by the ways books are used, and the way you can destroy and rebuild them.”