Research task: Artists’ books and fanzines

For this research task, I began by browsing the Smithsonian Libraries’ Artist Book archive to identify any books I found interesting or unusual. Some of the books challenged the idea of what a book could be. The website introduction explains how books as works of art are a product of the 20th century. They are unique creations, pushing the boundaries, exploring difficult narratives, and showing extreme care and attention to detail.

Below are the artists’ books I was drawn too the most. I found that I appreciated the three-dimensional structures and the way the texture or feel came across in the image. I printed images of each of these artists’ books and wrote a few notes on what captured my attention.

Next, I read Teal Triggs’ chapter ‘Definitions and early days’ from her book Fanzines: A do-it-yourself revolution (2010) and also flicked through the rest of the book, as I managed to get a hold of a copy. It was fascinating to read about the beginnings of fanzines and how they tie in with ‘fandom’ and fan culture, but also how they have evolved and encompass such a wide range of themes and purposes. The whole attitude of rebelling against the mainstream and being free of these constraints is quite an exciting thought.

I selected and photographed a few fanzines that caught my eye and wrote a few notes on why. Looking back on the images I selected, I was attracted to the cut and paste of typography, particularly when individual letters from different locations were combined. There were also some pieces I appreciated due to their layout, their colour choices, or the texture created with the materials. I was very instinctive with my choices, so there is quite a variety!

Through this research, I have certainly been inspired by some of the concepts explored by these artists. In the artists’ books, I was particularly taken with the ‘Hypothetical analysis of the twinkle in the stars’ and also the ‘World without end’. A focus for a book, especially as a work of art, is crucial to ensure the content, the imagery, the typography, and the structure can reflect this focus. I also loved the way fanzine creators played with images and type; I am hoping that I can channel this experimental spirit into my own work in this part of the course. It seems like an exciting opportunity to forget conventional, traditional, accepted ways of doing things and creating something unique, even if it is not viewed as flawless. These artists’ books and fanzines have attitude and personality.

Returning to the research

To place the artists’ books I found into more context and be able to compare their approaches further, my tutor suggesting finding out more about who created them. I chose some of my favourites to see what their other work looked like.

‘World without end’ was created by Julie Chen, a book artist and book art educator. I investigated her work a little further and found Flying Fish Press, a press established in 1987 by Chen. It focuses on the design and production of limited edition artists’ books, especially those with three-dimensional and movable book structures. A lot of the books on the site are intricate. Chen’s portfolio is striking. I found a few more books that intrigued me. The double helix looks like a sculpture, but it looks like the parts move/can be interacted with, and there are words running down the structure. I also liked the piece ‘Glimpse’, which has pull-out pieces with a snippet of a narrative typed on (this was created with Barbara Tetenbaum).

Another of my favourites was ‘A hypothetical analysis of the twinkle in the stars as told by a child to a teacher’ by Katherine Ng. She is a book artist and letterpress printer. Having had a look at her other works, most seem to reference her Chinese-American identity, such as her work ‘Banana Yellow’ using a Chinese take-out box stereotype (she made the pages represent the box and bound the book with recycled Chinese take-out box wire). The ‘Twinkle in the stars’ piece I fell in love with uses an origami wishing star as the book structure (she was taught this by students when she was an assistant at an elementary school).

My final favourite was ‘The First Noel by Jan Pieńkowski; the carousel book presenting the Christmas story. Jan started his artistic career in advertising design, greeting cards, and drawing live on the BBC, then went on to illustrate book covers and children’s books. Some of his children’s books include ‘The Meg and Mog stories’ and some pop-up books, such as ‘Little monsters’ and ‘Dinner time’.

All these artists are based in book design, illustration, or art, but all bring different approaches to their books. Julie Chen certainly focuses, overall, on the physicality of the book and the interaction her audience can have with the narrative. Her pieces look like works of art, sculptures to stand alone, but also to be moved, changed and explored. Katherine Ng focuses on the space for personal expression a book can give her. Each of her creations reflects her culture and identity in order to tell the narrative, which helps the reader form a connection with her as the artist and author. Finally, Jan Pieńkowski specialises in storytelling with children. Some of his work includes pop-up books, which are also aimed at children, but it is his drawings with their bold black outlines and bright colours that are what he is known for. All have a gift for telling a story, but they all do this in their own style.

My tutor asked: Would you consider some of these examples of artists’ books as similar to mini theatre sets; stages that set the scene? Is this an approach you may want to explore?

I would certainly consider some of these examples as similar to mini theatres. I think quite a few have this effect, but particularly ‘Fenway Park’ by Laura Davidson (the tunnel book) because it stands up like a travelling mini theatre (it reminds me of a Punch and Judy set-up). Also, Alisa Christophe Banks’ ‘Storm sequence’ has this same effect. It is almost as if the artists have captured the location in their book design and any text tells us what happened there.

In the future, I would like to try this. I did attempt to incorporate this feeling of a stage and interacting with an environment in my first assignment (my curtain page was intended to be a subtle reference to this), but it would be interesting to create something more three-dimensional and movable. I like the idea of the carousel or the globe because they can stand up and tell a story as a continuum. The ‘twinkle in the stars’ is also pleasing because the story gradually unfolds, but this is less of a theatre and more of a hidden script. My experiments in layering landscape images might help this and a further exploration of pop-up books, pull-out elements, and peepholes or concertinas. Accessed 28/10/20      Accessed 28/10/20 Accessed 28/10/20 Accessed 28/10/20

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