By TAMMY LA GORCE
Published: October 5, 2012
A version of this article appeared in print on October 7, 2012, on page WE9 of the New York edition with the headline: More Than Art Books, The Books Are the Art.
THE book artist Maureen Cummins says she deliberately “snares” viewers by luring them toward an image they’re familiar with. Then she surprises them with information that doesn’t necessarily fit their preconceived notions.
“It’s an ambush approach — a way of engaging people when you want to explore something difficult,” said Ms. Cummins, 49, of High Falls.
Castle Gallery, a three-room space tucked into the campus of the College of New Rochelle, does not lend itself to thoughts of such surprise attacks: its blond wood floors and white walls transmit a breezy, open-air lightness. But since “In Retrospect,” a show that will run through Nov. 4, opened there early last month, artistic ambushes have been occurring daily, said Katrina Rhein, the gallery director.
Ms. Cummins, whose works include “Stocks and Bonds,” a series of wall-mounted photo engravings showing and describing an assortment of torture devices — they seem to be both marvels of innovation and conduits for cruelty in her depictions — is not the only one responsible for them. The traveling exhibition displays the work of three New York book artists; in addition to Ms. Cummins, Nava Atlas and Ann Lovett contributed handcrafted books and works on paper. The result is “a show unlike anything we’ve ever had before, where the work goes from very playful to very serious,” Ms. Rhein said.
“People are fascinated,” she said.
Book art, according to all three artists, who live in Ulster County and took a bus trip together for a recent interview at the gallery, is currently experiencing an upswing in popularity. “Since books and content are becoming more and more electronic, there seems to be a great interest in the book as an object and as an object of beauty,” Ms. Atlas said. “As a result, a lot of colleges are now offering book art classes in their programs. Larger colleges and universities are collecting artist books like crazy. It’s really exploded.”
That does not mean that the public is altogether clear on what book art is, exactly.
Ms. Lovett, an art professor who teaches a class in book art at the State University at New Paltz, and whose works for “In Retrospect” include “Remains,” a hand-bound book that explores how time has muddled individual experiences at three former concentration camp sites, explained: “At the most fundamental level, an art book is usually a collection of reproductions of paintings or photographs that were made to be paintings or photographs. But an artist book is the work of art. It’s the conception of the piece in book form. That’s very different than a reproduction.”
The distinction is evident throughout “In Retrospect,” so named because each of the artists draws on historical subject matter to tell stories that linger in the present, Ms. Cummins said.
For example, Ms. Atlas’s “Magdalene Laundries: A Cross to Bear” displays altered books, an old-fashioned washboard and other found objects to loosely form a wall-mounted cross. The images and text explain the Magdalene Laundries, asylums founded in 19th-century Ireland for women cast out from society for sins including prostitution and bearing children out of wedlock. The last of the facilities remained open until 1996.
“Most of my work uses humor and irony, but there was nothing funny about this one,” said Ms. Atlas, 57, of New Paltz, whose displayed works include elaborately folded pamphlets and books centering on gender issues — “Sluts & Studs” and “Tomcats & Trollops” are among her titles.
In all, the exhibition comprises 27 works. Most pieces were made in the last decade, with a few dating to 1997. White cotton gloves are provided near several installations at which thumbing through fragile pages is encouraged.
Ms. Cummins, Ms. Atlas and Ms. Lovett met several years ago in Ulster County. Ms. Lovett was Ms. Atlas’s thesis adviser for the graduate program she completed in 2007 at SUNY New Paltz, and “Nava put Maureen and I together,” said Ms. Lovett, 58, also of New Paltz. At a 2008 lunch meeting at the home of Ms. Atlas, who is also a well-known author of vegan and vegetarian cookbooks, they decided to collaborate.
“Not only were we all working on books, we were all drawing from archives of found materials. And we were all working on subjects that can be difficult” for viewers to confront, Ms. Lovett said. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a show together?’ ”
“In Retrospect,” which opened in 2010 in Denver, has been on the road ever since; the College of New Rochelle is its seventh and final stop.
For Ms. Lovett, also a photographer, the exhibition’s portability has been a welcome change: “After a career of shipping art around, you start to value the ability to fold things up in a nice little package and put Bubble Wrap around them.”
For all three artists, the show has brought on renewed confidence in the public’s willingness to focus.
“Only one person at a time can look at a book, and they have to really concentrate,” Ms. Cummins said. “You cannot absorb this work by strolling through the gallery. It’s an intimate experience between the artist and the viewer, or the reader.”
Ms. Atlas added: “I didn’t think people would have the patience, because it does require a commitment” from the reader. “But they do have the patience. It’s been great to see.”
“In Retrospect,” through Nov. 4 at Castle Gallery at the College of New Rochelle, 29 Castle Place, New Rochelle; free. Open Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment. (914) 654-5423; castlegallery.cnr.edu.