Artist finds inspiration in the mail

Erica Van Horn’s “La ville aux dames”
Erica Van Horn’s “La ville aux dames” Photo by Tiffany Woo.

When was the last time you noticed the inside of an envelope?

American artist, bookmaker and writer Erica Van Horn manages to make art using just that. “The Book Remembers Everything: The Work of Erica Van Horn,” on display at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s mezzanine level, includes samples of Horn’s prints, book illustrations and calendars that feature the patterns found on the insides of envelopes.

Van Horn’s “Demon”
Van Horn’s “Demon”
A glimpse of Van Horn’s exhibit in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
A glimpse of Van Horn’s exhibit in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Van Horn’s appreciation of the seemingly mundane envelope does not stop there: She also sewed together collections of envelopes that she received over several years. Collecting, Van Horn says in an exhibit placard, can be “an art form, one that values daily practice, a careful eye, a completist sensibility.”

The envelope as an artistic unit embodies two of the three main tenets of Van Horn’s artistic sensibilities: the relationship between the foreign and the local, connected by mail and symbolized by envelopes, and the examination of everyday objects through an artistic perspective. Her use of the envelope as a link between domestic life and the outside world evokes Jan Vermeer’s Dutch interiors, except in Van Horn’s art the envelope also becomes the physical medium.

Van Horn is also interested in portraiture. Her likenesses entitled “Italian Lessons 1–17” provide a window into her daily life in Italy, while her self-portraits complement the foreign experience with a familiar face.

Not only does Van Horn expose the artistic in the ordinary, but she also toys with the form of books themselves. Prominent in the exhibit is a series of concertina-style textless books, some influenced by medieval painting techniques, that acquire narratives only through Van Horn’s painted images. The accordion-fold books can be viewed like regular books or they can be unfolded into a horizontal strip displaying a wider panorama of the painted images.

Appreciating the exhibit takes time and some degree of focus. The pieces are small and, at first glance, seem largely unremarkable. Each piece requires close review even to identify the elements that compose the piece, and to understand why these objects that one sees every day should qualify as art.

At the same time, however, Van Horn’s emphasis on the aesthetics of the quotidian and of reusing objects from her daily life to make art, invites the viewer to appreciate the ordinary things that we take for granted by force of habit.

The exhibition will be on display until March 27. A conversation with Van Horn will take place Feb. 24 at 4 p.m. at the Beinecke.

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