Another art museum from which art is banished, another exhibit celebrating the whimsical destruction of books. The Nazis took book burning seriously -- though they surely enjoyed reducing language and thought to ashes -- but I doubt they pretended their desecrations were works of art. We visited the Bellevue Arts Museum for the first time on Friday and saw the usual conceptualist bric-a-brac – a decorated meter maid’s cart, a stack of steel chairs, wall hangings that resembled soiled toilet paper, and “The Book Borrowers: Contemporary Artists Transforming the Book.” The closest thing to art on display was a room hung with quilts.
Thirty-one artists, using books as their medium, have made unbook-like objects – a Buddha head, a recumbent human body, a scale-model of a canyon, a circular object resembling a cross-section of tree trunk, you name it. The poster at the entrance tells us:
“These days much of the reading we do is done on a computer screen, and as we shift towards the digital as our primary means of conveying information, it seems timely to examine the precipice on which we stand.”
You will, of course, note the graceful flow of the prose. We had the echoing galleries to ourselves, except for a sleepy-looking guard. The kids wondered why somebody had wrecked so many books. “You can’t read them now,” our 6-year-old observed, and I wondered if any of the artists had read their books before destroying them, or if they read any books at all. One artist, Casey Curran, betrayed a glimmer of talent. His works, “The Whale” and “Pretence,” reminded us of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. The former includes a wire model of a whale and pages cut from Moby-Dick and pasted into a collage. I noticed the opening of Chapter 108, “Ahab and the Carpenter”:
“Drat the file, and drat the bone! That is hard which should be soft, and that is soft which should be hard. So we go, who file old jaws and shinbones.”
A handsome old copy of Ben-Hur was inlaid into “Pretence,” as well as a horoscope cast for someone born at 9:30 a.m. PDST, on July 9, 1951. Curran’s work showed some wit and draftsman-like care in execution. In the museum gift shop I asked to look at a copy of the catalogue for “The Book Borrowers.” The clerk said they were sold out, more were on order, would I like to put one on hold?
When presumably educated people mangle books and turn them into ugly objects, and other presumably educated people pay money to look at those ugly objects, and critics flatter themselves into appreciating their Duchampian daring, who is left to read books and look at pictures? The museum had on display not a single oil painting, watercolor or acrylic; no still lifes, portraits or landscapes; no figurative or abstract sculptures. Most of the galleries were as empty as the parking garage where we left the car. Is there room for those semi-mythical beasts, the art lover and common reader?
“You can’t read them now,” our 6-year-old observed.