The last time I altered a book, the change was a tea stain and the move did not require much imagination. But after seeing “Odd Volumes: Book Art from the Allan Chasanoff Collection” at the Yale University Art Gallery, which runs until Feb. 1, I’ve been challenged to view material books as foundations for creativity. There are many dictionaries in this exhibit, but the Noah Websters here are the artists. The skeletal definition of a book is something with leaves — with their recto and verso sides — and a spine to gather the pages together. And then there is the other necessary, universal experience of the book for the reader — the mystery of the closed book, and the revelation of the book opened. The objects on display explore the space created by that experience: They stretch, alter and redefine what it means to “open” a book.
Many of the pieces here are entry points to other worlds through form rather than content. Megan Williams’s “Altered Book Landscapes” and Guy Laramee’s “Vulcan” and “Sinking” were both invitations to envision a paper-thin environment, topography made of paper. Pamela Paulsrud’s “Landscape Narratives II” was probably the most delicate act of alteration: a series of book-stones polished into sedimentary rocks, with colorful bindings deposited on top of white sandstone pages. James Elaine’s “Worm Hole Book” and Jana Kluge’s “Book written by the Sea” evoked some very hungry caterpillars and ocean underworlds, respectively. And one could even be transported to the Peabody Museum not too far away: Elaine’s “Triumph of Venice” contained a pressed bird (feathers and all), while his “Turtle Book” held a medium-sized flattened turtle. Don’t read this one at the dinner table, kids.
Whereas many objects in the exhibit were altered nearly beyond recognition, there were two types of printed matter that remained identifiable: bibliographical and Biblical works. Dictionaries and Deuteronomy, encyclopedias and Exodus — these are some of the pieces that claim to serve as reference material for the world. Yet in “Odd Volumes”, these texts that control and claim wisdom are exposed to natural and manmade manipulation. Linda Ekstrom’s “Work of the Bees” involved a rewriting of the Bible by bees, with chapter headings obscured by honeycomb. Doug Beube’s “Books of Knowledge Standing Up Against the Elements” showed burnt, battered encyclopedias huddling close. Terri Garland’s “Square Bible,” a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, sat pained but intact and, perhaps, ultimately hopeful. Scott McCarney’s “New Age Encyclopedia Index” ecstatically unraveled its entries all over the place. We are left to judge whether this artistic exploration of books of knowledge is chaos or creativity.
I finally reached a table and found objects that I could interact with — “You can touch these!” — so I promptly put away my laminated gallery guide. I peeped through a keyhole in a dictionary at a dictionary smaller still. I crinkled my eyes and played stop-motion with flipbooks for grown-ups. Finally I reached a large purple box with a profusion of flaps. In it were a series of purple books, spines with a fragmented letter apiece. “Suripesi!” they said, botching the spelling. I could see a lonely serif on one end, waiting to be reunited with an erstwhile “E.” It was reassuring to see how human hands had opened these books and very humanly re-shelved them the wrong way. I did not rearrange them. A slim, closed volume is always a surprise.