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Cantor exhibition spotlights state-of-the-art books, with emphasis on 'art'

A book is more than just a good read nowadays – it's evolved into a sophisticated art form, sometimes with videos, shadow puppets or vinyl LPs. In an exhibition of "clarity and elegance," the Cantor Arts Center shows a range of books from the Stanford Libraries' holdings.

Cantor Arts Center The Art of the Book in California: Five Contemporary Presses

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In the olden days, a book had plain pages, and it was designed for reading.

That was then. This is now. Welcome to the world of the "new book" – the avant-garde world of book-as-art.

The works featured in the new Cantor Arts Center exhibition, "The Art of the Book in California: Five Contemporary Presses," on view through Aug. 28, are decidedly high concept – they are as much art and image as they are word. But even that description deceives – clearly we're a galaxy beyond illustrated books. Some of the featured works have accompanying videos, or shadow puppets, or vinyl LPs, or parts that move – move, that is, beyond the quiet turning of a page.

Some are undoubtedly works of great beauty. Others are just as undoubtedly controversial, but altogether they make a "project of clarity and elegance," said Tom Seligman, director of the Cantor Arts Center. Guest curator Peter Rutledge Koch called the show "the most jewel-like exhibition I've ever been in."

How different are they? Diogenes: Defictions (1994) by Peter Koch Printers is identified as a "text transmission object" – a description that perhaps obscures more than it defines. Another try: It's a collaborative sculpture designed as a "forgery" of a hypothetical object discovered by archaeologists in an ancient Corinthian dump. The hand-lettered text was printed with zinc engravings on lead tablets. The text itself was translated from the lore surrounding the cynic Diogenes of Sinope, who was captured by pirates, sold into slavery and resettled in Corinth. His authentic writings haven't come down to us.

"This collaboration, the second in my Greek series, has been a source of constant wonder," Koch wrote in the catalog accompanying the Cantor exhibition. "It has been received in the art world as sculpture, in the book world as an artist's book, in the household as a conversation piece, and in the marketplace as an 'objet d'art.' Diogenes would have been amused, I'm certain."

Such works are interdisciplinary treasures all by themselves. A few, however, look like simply good old-fashioned reads – almost. Foolscap Press' Herakles and the Eurystheusian Twelve-Step Program re-envisions the Greek legend of the 12 labors of Herakles as a conversation between Herakles and his half-brother, King Eurystheus. Herakles has anger management issues, and the story is told in contemporary therapeutic lingo in panels.

Other books are simply sumptuous: Koch's edition of Joseph Brodsky's Watermark, the Russian poet's tribute to Venice, is bound in richly pigmented Venetian red papers made by hand and housed in an ebony portfolio box, with a bronze-plate cast made at the Valese Foundry in Venice embedded in the case and an extra suite of photogravures signed by photographer Robert Morgan.

Ninja Press' 1995 setting of W. S. Merwin's The Real World of Manuel Córdova tells the true story of a Peruvian who was abducted by Amazonian tribes and became a shamanic healer. Merwin's poem is printed on persimmon-washed and smoked handmade paper from Tokushima, Japan. The text, in an accordion-style binding, can be read in hand, stanza by stanza – or unfolded, all 15 feet of it.

Foolscap's downright exquisite edition of Ursula Le Guin's Direction of the Road, the story of an oak tree from its own perspective, is a sort of bookmaker's onomatopoeia. The linen paper made by the Saint-Armand mill mimics the sound of the rustling of leaves as you turn the pages.

"During the last 50 years, the conception and production of the book has evolved into an art form that exceeds all former standards for the book as object. Book arts have become a mature medium," according to Roberto Trujillo, head of the Stanford Libraries' Department of Special Collections.

Koch added that the exhibition features "five of the most exciting presses in California – and they are literary presses." One is his own Berkeley-based Peter Koch Printers. The other featured enterprises include Santa Cruz's Foolscap Press (Peggy Gotthold and Lawrence Van Velzer) and Moving Parts Press (Felicia Rice), Sherman Oaks' Ninja Press (Carolee Campbell) and Isla Vista's Turkey Press (Harry and Sandra Reese).

All the 50-or-so works in the exhibition are owned by the Stanford University Libraries, which collaborated with the Cantor Arts Center to mount the exhibition.

Each of the five presses has a few works for sale in the Cantor bookstore, with prices ranging from $250 to $3,500. (The exhibition catalog, The Art of the Book in California: Five Contemporary Presses, is a comparative steal at $30 in the bookstore.)

"A book doesn't want to be imprisoned behind glass," said Koch – a book wants to be held. Readers need to "have an intimate relationship with it."

Maybe, but to many viewers the exhibition of book arts is more akin to an haute couture fashion show – you wouldn't expect to wear the clothes you see on the Milanese runway. They're there for the looking.

A companion exhibition, "Illustrated Title Pages: 1500-1900," on view through Oct. 16, shows the development of layouts, printmaking techniques and typography through title pages. The exhibition features 60 illustrated title pages from the Cantor collection, with loans of about 20 books from the Stanford Libraries' Department of Special Collections. Included are editions of the Bible and title pages from works by Aristotle, Chaucer, Dante and Vasari.

Admission is free. The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday to 8 p.m. For museum information, call (650) 723-4177.

Media Contact

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu