Hampden Gallery features print-inspired art in “A Novel Idea”

By Chris Shores

Imagine walking into a small private library where books stand in a row along shelves fixed to the wall, waiting for a chance to be read.

Justin Surgent/Collegian

But these books have been deformed. Pages have been drawn on, folded or mutilated. They’ve been morphed into other objects – a painting, a bowl of rice and a flower. One book has been burned.

The physical book is disappearing – it is being replaced in a digital world by eBooks and tablet devices – so fear the creators of Hampden Gallery’s newest exhibit “A Novel Idea.” In their guide to the exhibit, curators Sally Curcio and Anne LaPrade Seuthe referenced Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel “Fahrenheit 451,” where television has completely replaced books. They said that his story “is as relevant now as it was in 1953… The physical book is flickering while interest in reading is on fire.”

The act of physically destroying books was “not taken lightly,” wrote the curators, acknowledging the difficulty of asking artists to destroy creative works.

And indeed it seemed that some artists were hesitant to dramatically alter the novels. Terry Jenoure and Michael O’Bannon placed a “Don’t Worry, Make Money” book inside a moneybag along with different forms of world currency. Pam Glaven chose to wrap a book’s pages in brown paper bags, a slight twist on the often-practiced book-wrapping technique. And Zoë Fedorjaczenko carefully folded each page of her Emily Dickinson poetry book so that it could be, she wrote in the guide, “freed from its conventional restraints.”

On first look, it seemed as if Holly Murray had only slightly altered Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” a text some might consider sacred. Murray stamped blue whales – over 18,000 in total, while listening to an audio recording of “Moby Dick” – on the pages of the book, in an attempt to document the killing of whales. The turning of a few pages, however, revealed that a section of the book had been cut out to store “Spermaceti Oil,” extracted by whalers to “make candles,” wrote Murray.

Candace Bradbury Carlin’s transformation of a “Sustenance and Desire” book into a bowl holding real rice was pure genius. Carlin used strips of text – single sentences or phrases – as the structure of the white bowl. In the guide, she said she has “such a visceral response to reading and often feel that certain books like this one get into my system; they are ingested.”

Linda Stillman elected to combine two of her passions: gardening and reading. At first glance, the carefully arranged purple-dyed pages looks like a real flower protruding out of a purple onion – it is, in fact, a vase, with its vibrant color derived from rose petals. Her artistic creation is a tribute to her aunt Essie, who recently died. The rose droops, and so Stillman writes “I’m quietly yet earnestly showing that we should marvel at the world around us and not take it for granted. Things change, grow, die and disappear.”

For some pieces though, the explanations may only lie inside the artist’s head. Klaus Postler’s “Jingle Bells Colouring Book” seems like the work of a child gone mad, with erratic coloring and scribbling, accompanied by inserted photos of wildlife.

And then there’s the exhibit the eye is first drawn to upon entering the gallery – a book whose pages are unraveled and dangling from the ceiling one next to the other across the room. Alexis Fedorjaczenko offers no real explanation of her work “Philyra” other than to say that she hopes it “honored the printed word and conveyed its importance in my life.”

“A Novel Idea” is on display in the Hampden Gallery until Feb. 19. The gallery is open Monday-Thursday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]