Sunday, October 26, 2008

Conscience at the New York Art Book Fair

This past weekend was the annual New York Art Book Fair, organized by Printed Matter, held at Phillips de Pury and Company in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. It was held in association with the Contemporary Artist Books Conference.

The fair had two sections, a more mainstream commercial area taking over most of the gallery, and the "Friendly Fire" section, a curated selection of independent publishing by artists and nonprofit organizations. Browsing the fair, I found most of the books on view similar to the type that Printed Matter sells -- the glossy, offset book, made up either entirely of photographs or overly filled with text. They were books as containers, things to be owned, casually perused, and then put back on the shelf. Very few were created for the purpose of viewer experience.

Events like this have led me to determine that there seems to be two schools of thought on the artist book. There is the non-narrative, book-containers that I saw this weekend, and then there are the forms that are descended from traditional printmaking. This second variety often embraces the narrative, creating through the use of text, image, structure, and sequence a transformation, an experiential arc that engages and carries viewers through the book. It is this second type, once encountered, that is much more engaging. They are much more sensual, and once discovered, the book-container format is disappointing and lackluster in comparison. This was not true of all artists at the fair, such exceptions as Keith Smith, Scott McCarney, Dobbin Books/Robin Ami Silverberg, Purgatory Pie Press, and Visual Studies Workshop proved to be extraordinary examples of the medium.

Additionally, there were several representatives of the new field of art journals such as Cabinet or Parkett, those that take the form of the artist-journal collaboration, a hybrid of mass communication and art. I'm very excited to see this field growing, but due to my typical lack of funds I've never had the opportunity to subscribe. I hope such enterprises continue, and I wish them the best of luck.

The fair had some of the scariest bouncer-type security guards I've ever seen at a book-related event (see photo above, by the Graphic Conscience). It seems that art events are following this trend of trying to imitate the hip-hop scene of a nightclub. In the past, artists set the trends of what was cool, original, and new, now we are following the fashions set by others in order to get noticed. It is the whole creation of "scenes" that take away from the art. No longer are patrons buying works because they are engaged, inspired, uplifted, connected or because of some other feeling. Now they purchase art to hold a part of that scene, that imagined party lifestyle, to make themselves feel less inadequate. Perhaps the next generation will rebel against this, and find themselves returning to making art with consideration, moving away from the endless system of pure reaction. Or maybe, the party will just continue on.

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