A reader’s world is fast and bright these days, an infinite scroll through limitless content. To slake our thirst for information, we swallow so many words we can’t taste them. Even books are designed for disposal: laser-printed for mass consumption and for cheap resale. Once upon a time, however, the written word was a work of art. The Virginia Arts of the Book Center (VABC) Member Showcase, now on display at Cityspace, is a quiet ode to the days when words carried literal and figurative weight, when their impressions on durable paper were assembled by careful hands.
The VABC is an open studio, supported by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, where artists practice making books, prints, and other fine art pieces. Print selections from the VABC’s Member Showcase include artwork, handmade books, and broadsides. Aside from a few digital photographs of printing presses and their components, the exhibit’s works were made using craftsmen’s tools and techniques: polyester and Sintraplate etchings, woodcuts and engravings. These methods transfer images by inking carved surfaces, then pressing a relief of the image onto paper or canvas. All are forms of letterpress, the umbrella term for printing practices invented by Johannes Gutenberg, which also includes the printing of text.
Finely textured words, assembled from moveable type on a press, inked and imprinted heavily onto paper, flow throughout the exhibit in the form of poems, citations, and announcements. On posters, like those for the VABC “Raucous Auction” fundraiser and other events, letters are large and fonts varied, combining newsboy excitement with a modern sense of humor. My favorite poster features a “shucking smackdown” and a pressed illustration of two women threatening each other with oyster shucking knives. Each color on these prints required a round of pressing, and even though a piece with blue and black and gray and pink and purple likely took hours, I sense the artists had fun.
The same is true for miniature and full-sized books propped up on pedestals throughout the exhibit. Book nerds, rejoice, for here you will find bindings and styles you’ve likely never seen: piano hinged books with spines like bound knitting needles; flag books with pages in long thick strips like keys on a musical instrument. Carousel books combine cutouts and folded pages and look like tiny theaters in the round.
On display too are mixed media collages layered with photopolymers, tiny blades of paper arranged among book spines and occasional type strikes. Key texts and titles have been plucked from old books lost to anonymity or worse, and they gain new life reconstituted as visual art form.
Counter-intuitively, works that most resemble pages tend to have the fewest number of words. Granted, visitors cannot leaf through the few bound books on display, so the majority of type is likely hidden from view. But the art, the beauty, of all these objects relies on their literary economy.
The majority of the exhibit is dedicated to broadsides, single pieces of paper printed with a single poem or sparse paragraph. Unchallenged by numerous visuals or layers of color, the simple texture of these letters on paper—seen most often on wedding invitations—focus the mind on the effort that each word requires, the precision and hours behind every line. This form of art is the most accurate I’ve found to express writing as a labor of love. It reminds viewers how long it takes to create beautiful sentences or verse. It manifests the exhaustion inherent to honest self-expression.
As I read through broadsides, I think of the poets, and the years they’ve dedicated to their craft. I think of the work it will take me just to describe what I’ve seen. I linger even though I shouldn’t, like most people, I have obligations elsewhere.
Someone made a letterpress of Charles Wright’s Cowboy Up. “I’d like to see the river of stars / fall noiselessly through the nine heavens for once, / But the world’s weight, and the world’s welter, speak big talk and big confusion.”
In these letters I catch a glimpse of the way the world used to be. For just a second, before I leave, I imagine a cascade of stars.
The VABC Member Show will be on display at CitySpace through September 27. www.virginiabookarts.org.