Art Shop (The)

One of the noticeably growing sectors on the art scene at the moment is the genre known as Book Art. Rallying to the hand-made ethic, Book-Art in all its diversity is a response to the throwaway mass-production culture of the age, and the encroachment of digital media such as the Luisa Prelotani, of VACA – the Italian Cultural Association which runs the yearly international book-art competition Libri Mai Mai Visti, says, “For twenty years now we’ve increasingly heard talk about the imminent disappearance of the book, that object which grew up around a text and in centuries of history was refined and aroused appreciation for the beauty of the materials, the elegance of the paging and bindings, the refinement of the illustrations embellishing it.” Now… “an ever greater number of artists scattered all over the planet have rebelled against this idea by concentrating mainly on the book-object in itself, by means of a ferment and creativity which are far indeed from seeing the book as a thing on the road to extinction.” An exhibition currently running at The Art Shop, a small gallery in Abergavenny, gives a fascinating overview of the subject, with many of the finest artists in the field represented. The playfulness and inventiveness of these makers is striking and, at times, astonishing, with a bewildering variety of forms and materials put to use. There are books in the shape of boxes, concertinas, sample-strips; plain books and extravagant books, shaggy ones and sleek ones. There are books which are virtually only the casings of books, such as those of North Wales based Canadian artist, Childe Roland which may contain only one line of text impressed into tissue paper, barely-legible meditations on absence and silence. One room is devoted to the winning work of this year’s Libri Mai Mai Visti competition. Tea Tales, by Cecilia Coppola comprises a series of tome-like boxes which open to reveal a number of large ceramic teapots, ornately shaped and decorated with fantastical images suggestive of fairytale transformations. The boxes are lined with bits of cut-out text relating to the Beauty and the Beast story. Encountering this piece is like coming face to face with the contents of your own childhood imagination transplanted into the world of physical realities, absurd, forlorn, discomfiting, but extremely beautiful. Jessie Chorley, meanwhile, makes books out of fabric, wire, papier maché, paint, ink, appliqué and all manner of found objects, to explore memory and create vestiges of narrative. Her Journals are confected from old volumes filled with the souvenirs of her wanderings, bus-tickets, photos, magazine cuttings, sketches, passing thoughts and so on, the covers altered and tied with ribbon. There are plenty of examples too of books in the more classical, time-honoured sense of the word: storybooks; poetry books; books of illustrations, often irresistibly delicious to the eye and the touch. A major feature of the show is the work of Welsh-based Old Stile Press, run by Frances and Nicolas McDowell, who make exquisite hand-printed volumes in collaboration with writers and artist-printmakers at their base in the Wye Valley just north of Tintern. The care and craftsmanship lavished on these objects is something to behold. You only have to read some of the descriptions in the online catalogue to get a flavour of this almost fanatical devotion to detail and quality. Here, for instance, is the data on “Earth Dances” a collection of poems by Ted Hughes with illustrations by RJ Lloyd: “Handset Bembo and Bodoni type. Text printed on Rivoli paper on a FAG Control 900 press. 24 linocuts, of which 9 are full-page and 8 of these are printed on four different papers made by Frances McDowall which incorporate nettle, onion, Japanese knotweed, pampas grass and alkanet fibres. Quarter light brown cloth, spine titled in gilt, boards covered in onion fibre paper, handmade by Frances McDowall. Slipcase covered in deep orange cloth, blocked in black on both sides with brass made from linocut originals.” Amongst the stand-out examples of the Press’s productions on show here are a collection of woodcut prints by Philip Sutton, a selection of Dylan Thomas’s Laugharne poems and an elaborately illustrated Book of Revelations in which the words are continually transmogrifying into pictures. A book is a mysterious thing: you step through its covers into a different universe, in which all kinds of unforeseen and unlikely transfigurations become not only possible but inevitable. What Book-Art seems to want to do is to celebrate this process, to enhance our awareness of it through an almost ritualistic elaboration of the material “portal”. It is as if the book becomes a kind of temple to itself, a shrine, a physical reminder of the importance of the imagination in our lives, and the cherishableness of its sensual components. A site for magic, perhaps, and one that, because not only beautiful but graspable, becomes one of the points on our individual maps that we can return to again and again, with a sense of relish and belonging. Anyone who ever felt any excitement about the act of reading, or joy in the feel, sight and smell of a loved book, should try and get along to this beguiling exhibition. For more information:; Tel: 01873 852690)