Read Between the Lines

Read Between the Lines

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View is about coming to terms with mortality. Two books rest inside the box, which, when tilted forward, reveals a view of a miniature world.

Sibila Savage

If you want to understand artist Julie Chen's exquisite books, start by getting your hands on one.

"One of the secrets of artists' books," Julie Chen observes, "is that they have to be handled to be experienced fully."

If you're not among the lucky few to own a piece by Chen, the noted book artist based in Berkeley, California, the next best thing is to view them at a library with special collections encompassing such work.

You might find yourself seated at a long table in a wood-paneled reading room, surrounded by rare, centuries-old volumes in glass cases. When the librarian brings you Chen's books, you realize this will be no ordinary browse. As other readers turn conventional pages, you open exquisitely crafted boxes, beguiling origami-like shapes, a dramatic three-dimensional landscape. You spin wheels, lift flaps, move puzzle pieces. Meanwhile, you're reading words that are poetic, sometimes cryptic, and all the more compelling for being part of a sequential tactile encounter.

"In Julie's work, the physical form of the book reinforces the concept and text," says Victoria Steele, the Brooke Russell Astor director of collections strategy at the New York Public Library. A longtime Chen fan, Steele considers her "a formidable talent" in the field. "Her book structures are so inventive, and she has the most wonderful sense of color. She does something new in each of her books, but they are all instantly recognizable as ‘Julies.' "

Chen's hallmark is "her ability to combine innovative structures with content," says Sandra Kroupa, the book arts and rare books curator at the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division since 1968. "People tend to think of book arts as easier to ‘get,' initially, because we all sort of know what books are, or think we do," Kroupa says. "I make a point of never defining the word ‘book,' because as a librarian and a curator, I feel it's up to artists to be defining that. And people like Julie are on the cutting edge of pushing whatever the boundaries are."

By taking the familiar form to imaginative heights, Chen turns raw emotion into universal experience. A Guide to Higher Learning (2009) simulates an impossibly difficult math exam as an elaborate board game that first stirs confidence, then confusion, then despair as it unfolds. In the end, the answer is equanimity. "You realize you don't understand what's going on and you never will," Chen says. "But by that point you've got this whole beautiful thing laid out. You can see the beauty for itself, even if you can never master it."

Chen has managed to achieve both beauty and mastery, on a path begun in Los Angeles, where she was born in 1963 and grew up playing classical piano. Her father, a Methodist minister with a passion for music, hoped she'd be a concert pianist, but her hands were too small. From her mother, who did macramé, decoupage, and other "things popular in the '70s," she acquired a love of making objects. She earned a degree in studio art at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1984, and with no particular career in mind, took time off to have her daughter. Then she read about the noted book arts program headed by Kathleen Walkup at Mills College in Oakland, visited the studio, and felt instantly at home.

"It's still strange to me," she marvels. "I'd never seen an artist book. It was not something I had any clue that anybody did. I honestly can't explain what caused me to decide, without any hesitation, ‘This is what I'm going to do.' "

At Mills, Chen got a solid foundation in traditional letterpress printing and hand-binding skills (which today she'll "bend" or combine with newer technologies to suit her needs), exposure to the school's distinguished collection of fine press books, and awareness of a larger world of contemporary innovators such as Claire Van Vliet, whose Janus Press she cites as an early and enduring inspiration. In 1987, while still a student, she founded Flying Fish Press.

Over the years, Chen has done occasional collaborations (with fiber artist Nance O'Banion and book artists Barbara Tetenbaum and Clifton Meador, to name a few), but mainly publishes one major book of her own each year, usually in editions of 100 copies. The subject is whatever she happens to be interested in or wrestling with, be it a current event like the run-up to the Iraq War (The Veil, 2002) or our perception of personal tumult (True to Life, 2005). Since 1996 she also has taught at Mills, where her mission is to convey the rich potential of the book as art: "You can use the physical format, the interaction of text and image, and the way the book is revealed over time to develop a very complex experience for the reader."

Because they're so engaging, artists' books have educational as well as expressive power. At the University of Washington, Kroupa uses Chen's books for teaching, not just "to explain to students that in order to be an artist, you do not have to forsake craft," but also because they're surefire attention-getters: "No matter how cool and uninvolved an undergraduate group of students might be, when you put [artists' books] on a table and manipulate them, everyone gasps."

Some of Chen's works seduce with charm. Bon Bon Mots (1998) is a sampler of tiny, colorful booklets containing ambiguous aphorisms, not all as sweet as they look. "If you give me a box of candy, I'm going to wind up eating all of them, even the ones I don't like," she explains. "So that was the hook. I wanted people to open the box, see all these irresistible pieces, and start to interact with them. They would be forced, in a way, to take in all of it because they wouldn't be able to pass it up."

She takes a bolder, more in-your-face approach in Panorama (2008), an ambitious, 5-foot-wide sculptural foldout that addresses the possible catastrophic effects of climate change. "It got bigger and bigger as I developed the concept," she says. "I wanted people to really have to deal with this, at least while they were looking at the book."

Reader reaction and interaction matter to Chen, so much that she once worried her work was becoming too self-indulgent. Her response was the contemplative Personal Paradigms (2003), which invites people to arrange wooden shapes in combination with various loaded phrases and words ("the past," "sadness," "commitment," for example), then draw and write about it in a ledger. As you discover after playing a round, it's a moving and strangely cathartic exercise. Chen seems pleased to hear this and wants to know: Did you record your results in the ledger? Had others?

Well, no. The reality is, to alter a "Julie" in front of librarians, even if it is tempting, permitted, and what she wants, is a daunting line to cross. She's disappointed, but understands. "I knew when I designed that piece that it was going to be a challenge."

It's both the quandary and mystique of her art: the exquisite object we hesitate to handle, but long to, and must.

Work by Julie Chen is in the group exhibition "One by One: An Exploration of the Book Arts" at the Craft in America Study Center, Los Angeles, Mar. 3 - May 14. Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor.