It's not often that the Boston area sees a large exhibition featuring only artists' books (works of art in book form), which is a shame. Because as book artist Janine Wong of Milton puts it, "A painting is very public all the time. But an artist's book, you pick it up. It's human scale. You move through it at whatever pace you want to. It just provides an experience that's very different from any other art form. It's a more intimate art experience."
So think of "Shelter," which opens today at Lasell College in Newton, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m., as a rare invitation from 50 book artists for a little tête-à-tête. And what do they want to talk about? None other than the hot topic of shelter.
"I had issues like homelessness, foreclosures, and the mortgage crisis in mind when I put out the call to artists," said Gloucester book artist Veronica Morgan. "But when you put out a theme like shelter and stand back to see what happens, you'll find that artists tend to look at a topic through every angle."
Some pieces do delve into such concrete issues as flooding, dislocation, and urban and rural decay. Portland, Ore., artist Laura Russell contributes a photograph-based book of abandoned houses that is as striking as it is sobering. But most of the exhibits launch into much more psychological territory. Shelter becomes a metaphor for everything from a way to hide identity to a force that protects ignorance. One piece from England even laments the vanishing hedgerow as a shelter for animals.
"There's one great book you can peek into it, but the problem is that it's made out of solid wood, so you can't read it. It's called 'Secrets,' and you just want to get into, or peer into it, but you can't. It's about sheltering secrets and it's beautiful," said Wong, referring to a work by John Magnan of New Bedford.
"Another that really struck me was 'Blind: Seeking Shelter 1937,' " by Eleanor Rubin of Newton, added Wong, who curated the show for Morgan. "It's about shelter as safe haven, and tells the story of this brilliant Jewish musician who applied for asylum in the US to escape the Nazis. But he was blind, so he was listed as handicapped and couldn't get in at first. It's quite a story."
The concept of "book" is stretched every which way. A printed scroll, complex pop-ups, a 3-D house with an open volume for a roof, and an intricate hand-cut paper tower are just a few of the shapes that the exhibition's works take. The wide range of materials includes handmade paper, doorknobs, antique photographic plates, and a metal cage that confines a once-censored book.
"The whole subject of book arts is a rather controversial one," said Morgan, explaining that some scholars limit the genre to works that are clearly book-like, while others include sculpture-like "book objects" that are "more of a free-for-all playground where anything goes."
Take "Bottled Up," a piece by Marlborough artist Tore Terrasi. With 12 small glass vials set in rows in a plain black case, it looks more like a black-market doctor's private pharmacy than art - until you pull the bottles out to find each holding a printed strip of paper, its words washing in and out of view like the fragments of a dream.
"It's about sheltering emotions and desires," said Wong. "It's one of my favorite pieces in the show. I see it as a book because it contains information you view in a sequence."
But some in the field would not agree, which is what makes "Shelter" all the more interesting. Wong and Morgan took the broadest view of the medium.
"I'm not sure where I stand on this debate, because I've seen many exciting works by artists who are just doing what they love with the stuff they love. Some of those unusual pieces have wound up in prestigious collections, yet some curators would not take them seriously," said Morgan. "It's a healthy debate and will be interesting to follow."
"Shelter" is on display through April 22 in Wedeman Gallery, Yamawaki Arts & Cultural Center, Lasell College, 49 Myrtle Ave., Newton. Free. Hours: Daily, noon-5 p.m. 978-281-7585. Directions at digitalfisch.com/lasell.html.
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