An Artist's Book Is Not A Taco

Wine label on new Moleskine travel journal
Certain types of bookmaking lend themselves well to what I'd call sketching out of an idea. You've probably seen them. They contain collections, possibly paper ephemera, or are made up of collages. They may document a process like painting or stamping or calligraphy or decorate a travel journal. These books are valuable as practice books and documents, and some can be quite intriguing.

Why do I have so many bags of stuff?

However (you knew there was going to be a however), when you are making book art, I'd like to encourage you to develop a concept beyond the sketch or scrapbook. Many curiosities stuck in a book do not automatically make an artist's book. The artist's book is not a taco or a sandwich.

That said, I've seen books that look like sandwiches with words printed on paper that is shaped and colored to be bread, lettuce, tomato, etc., but these books use the physical sandwich as a concept. Form and concept connections are good things, they help the reader better understand the meaning. That form and concept connection is present here, but this book now walks a fine line because a new danger presents itself: novelty, or the cute factor.

Just because you may want your work to be taken seriously doesn't mean you have to give up all novelty or cuteness, but you will have to work harder to convince the viewer to linger longer with your book. One way to avoid being labeled as a novelty artist is to make sure you are working with many layers of meaning (see Conceptual Layers on page 241 in Making Handmade Books for a detailed example).

So, if it's a book shaped like a sandwich, how do you avoid the cuteness? Try to connect with social, political, or emotional content. I can think of a few subjects offhand: world hunger; eating disorders; school lunch programs; organic farming practices. When I made my book, Save This Bag, I was a little worried that it was too cute, but the text is quite ironic, including references to the ubiquitous "ketchup is a vegetable" statement and the meaning of expiration dates.

Save This Bag, 2006

Another danger to avoid (the world is fraught with them!), is in thinking too much or looking too hard for a serious subject. In the Special Features for the film, Rachel Getting Married, Debra Winger comes to Jonathan Demme, the director, asking, "What is the subtext" for her character. Demme says, "There is no subtext," because he just wants her to feel the character and the lines as written, without reading too much into it. (It should be noted that she curses him out for this.) I think he didn't want her performance to come from thinking/the mind, just felt and from the heart. The same should hold true for your book subtext, but be balanced. Starting with your concept, your subtext should evolve naturally from concerns that touch you.


Claire said…
Hello! I stumbled upon this blog without actually realising that it was your book I am waiting to fall through my letterbox in the next couple of days, lol

I understand what you mean about the "cuteness" factor appearing in your books. I am trying to avoid this too. Although I love making books, I am aiming for a gritty almost primitive grungy look sometimes. I want my books to look worn and loved, rather than neat and cute.

But, lets see...your book may inspire me to different methods and ideas. i'm so glad I found your blog!