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    May 2007
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Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Robert Sabuda at the UMFA
by Jim Frazer

The books of Robert Sabuda, acclaimed children's book author and illustrator, are both mystifying and awe-inspiring to me. Which is why I eagerly anticipated his exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, which opened last month and continues through the summer. I was expecting that an exhibit by the "prince of pop-ups" would be exclusively about pop-up books, so I was surprised and disappointed to find that about half the works in The Art of Robert Sabuda: Travels in Time and Space were not three-dimensional.

Sabuda's two-dimensional illustrations on display utilize a wide variety of media and techniques. In some, unconventional and laborious methods are used to form discrete colored shapes which are then combined to make images. The most interesting of these are in The Paper Dragon, where the colored shapes were painted on the reverse side of gessoed tissue paper, then cut out and pasted onto Japanese paper to form the figures in the illustrations. This seemed to work to preserve the delicacy of the fragile paper while still allowing sharply defined areas of color to make up the images.

Even more laborious is the paper mosaic technique used in St. Valentine. These illustrations are made from thousands of pieces of painted paper about a sixteenth of an inch wide by an eighth of an inch long which are cut out and pasted next to each other like mosaic tiles. Unfortunately, much of the effect of the detail produced by such tedious procedures, which is visible in the originals, is lost when the images are reproduced mechanically and reduced in size to produce the actual books.

In several of the techniques, the colored shapes are separated by rather heavy-handed black lines. This seems natural in The Wizard of Oz (which is a pop-up book) where the technique is hand colored wood block prints. The fake stained glass on plexiglas technique used for Arthur and the Sword lacks the luminosity of real stained glass and since the illustrations are much smaller than a stained glass window would be, the lead lines seem wide in proportion to the areas of color. It's a bit hard to see the point of the procedure used in Tutankhamen's Dream, where colored shapes are painted onto large sheets of papyrus and then the black lines which outline all the objects are cut out of a large sheet of black paper and dropped over the papyrus, again like the lead in stained glass windows. The only places where the papyrus texture is really apparent, even in the originals, is in large open areas such as sky which are left unpainted.

The illustrations for The Blizzard's Robe are much more satisfying. The medium used there is batik on paper, which is also an uncommon technique, but it seems to work in this instance. The colors are vivid and the images are more lively and flowing than those in the techniques that rely on cutting and pasting shapes of color.

Most of the exhibits pop-up books are on a table in the middle of the room where anyone can look through them. This makes it possible to look at many books and pop-ups instead of just a few. The pop-up books which are examined in more detail in the displays hung on the walls include working models of some of the pop-ups -- the uncolored dummies used to work out the details of the paper engineering aspect of the books. It's interesting that the mechanisms designed to hold the dummy books in plexiglas cases while still allowing the viewer to open and close the pop-up magnifies the experience of turning the page in a book until the book and mechanism combine to form a piece with a presence of its own.

Although it's interesting to see a city or a house as a pop-up, such objects are basically static, that is they are either folded up or unfolded. Some of the animals, though, convey the idea of movement as they are in the process of unfolding. In The Jungle Book, for instance, as one unfolds the wolf, the figure leaps out of the page toward you, baring its fangs and pinning its ears back as it comes. This is the experience that the title of the exhibit (Travels in Time and Space) refers to, because the best pop-ups really exist in four dimensions -- the three spatial dimensions plus the dimension of time as the construction is unfolded.

It is perhaps for this reason that natural history subjects seem particularly well adapted to the pop-up format There is a sense of marvel and delight in seeing the natural world magnified which is wonderfully amplified by the three dimensional presence of the pop ups and the experience in time of seeing the creatures unfold. It calls to mind time-lapse photographs of insects metamorphosing between stages in their life cycle. The two Young Naturalist's Pop-up Handbooks, one on beetles and one on butterflies are presented in detail. On these, Sabuda collaborates with Matthew Reinhart a pop-up artist who also has a degree in biology.

One interesting aspect of the exhibit is a table with supplies and instructions for making your own simple pop-ups. This kind of hands-on experience is encouraged by Sabuda on his web site (www.robertsabuda.com) where a whole section is devoted to detailed instructions for making a variety of simple pop-ups. Although not part of the exhibit, anyone interested in pop-up books or paper engineering should visit this website. The FAQ section of the site details every phase of design and production of the books down to the type of glue and weight of card stock used. In addition, there are links to other pop-up sites and recommendations of paper engineers.

What I had hoped to see in this exhibit but didn't were the ideas that didn't make it to full production books. I was hoping that in addition to the behind the scenes insight into the making of commercial projects there would have been some more personal explorations that were pursued even though the artist knew that it wouldn't translate into a mass market item. Instead, the exhibit, organized by the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature, simply presents a packaged overview of Sabuda's commercial work and a bit of introduction to the production aspects of making pop-up books.

In conjunction with this exhibition, which runs through September 9, the UMFA will offer a series of films, lectures and art classes for children and adults: Film: The Wizard of Oz, 12:00 p.m., May 19. Third Saturday Art Project for children ages 4 – 12 (Free and open to the public): Take a tour through the fantastic pages of Robert Sabuda's artwork in The Art of Robert Sabuda: Travels in Time and Space. Gather ideas for new ways to illustrate and engineer books written by you, using our tools and templates to create something totally new. Film: Travels in Time and Space, June 16, 12:00 p.m. Adult Class: Calligraphy, Wednesdays June 13, 20, 27, 6:30–8:30 p.m.

Pop-Ups and Paper Engineering Class: Tuesday-Friday, July 17-20, 10 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. This class for kids ages 6 – 12 explores all aspects of book illustration. To register call 801-581-6984. Lecture: Paul Johnson: Pop-up Magic, July 18, 6:00 p.m. Artful Afternoon: Turning Paper into Art: Join us for a FREE day at the Museum with performances and fun-filled book making activities for the whole family, July 21, 12:00–4:00 p.m.
Film: Camelot, August 18, 12:00 p.m.
Feature: Recently Read
The Allure of the Unexpected
by Shawn Rossiter

Two book reviews and an announcement on the first Artists of Utah Book Swap.

Putting this edition of 15 Bytes together, I was struck by something that Hadley Rampton said in her On the Spot feature. Remarking on a Giacometti exhibit she came across in the Czech town of Cesky Krumlov, Hadley said: "Along with being a wonderfully thought-provoking exhibit, the unexpectedness of it definitely contributed to its allure." Hadley's observation struck me because I have been delighted recently by two unexpected book discoveries. I hadn't known about or gone looking for either, but once I found them I was doubly delighted, both for what the books were and for having discovered them unexpectedly.

The first, Siri Hustvedt’s Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting, I came across at a local bookstore. It had been left on a table by a previous customer and the cover's cropped image of one of Goya's late paintings caught my eye the way its relatively innocuous spine, wedged amongst several others on a shelf, would not have. One of my first barometers for the value of an unknown book is its opening line; and Hustvedt's simple but powerfully accurate "Painting is there all at once" made me sit down. Halfway through the first essay, "The Pleasures of Bewilderment" (on Giorgione's The Tempest), I decided to buy the book -- despite my recent vow (that of a hopeless backslider) to stop buying art books.

The nine essays in Mysteries of the Rectangle are captivating in their fresh insight, ease of language and healthy appetite for things visual. I suspect this is because Hustvedt "the art writer" (she is a novelist by trade), was the unexpected discovery of Karen Wright, editor of Modern Painters, who invited Hustvedt to write for the magazine after reading the author's first novel. It is Hustvedt's position from outside the professional art world that makes her writing so refreshing. Hustvedt uses her eyes -- rather than the received notions rumbling around in her brain-- to look at paintings. This refreshing vision is brought to light in essays that examine the mysterious allure of Giorgione's enigmatic "The Tempest;" the artistic singularity that sets Chardin apart from the genre painters of his day; and the religious quality of Vermeer's "Annunciation." Hustvedt's virgin eyes are what allow her to discover a self-portrait in Goya's "The Third of May," something that had slipped past the sight of seasoned professionals. Her two essays on Goya, one devoted to the artist's Los Caprichos, are particularly perceptive. Cézanne, Giorgio Morandi, Joan Mitchell and Gerhard Richter all come under the catholic sweep of her gaze in essays that demonstrate the power of writing when someone looks at art for love rather than labor.

My second happy discovery came in a padded manila envelope, slightly torn from having been stuffed through the slot in my garage door that serves as a mailbox. Inside the envelope, I found a wonderful, hard back, full-size, cloth-bound art book with an image of a painting by Lyonel Feininger on the dust jacket. I had not requested this book for review, so its title, The Busch-Reisinger Museum: Harvard University Museums, meant nothing to me. Despite having visited Harvard a couple of times, I was unaware of this museum, originally devoted to German culture but which has since become a museum of the visual arts of German-speaking countries.

What struck me about this volume was its layout, which seems backwards. Once past the forward by director Thomas W. Lentz, the first page of the actual book is a broad white sheet with two small video stills from a 2000 film by Jeanne Faust and Ulrich Kohler. This first plate is followed by over two hundred more (all in color) in as many pages, arranged in descending chronological order. For any sort of essay, you must turn to the back of the book where Joseph Leo Korner has written on the history and identity of the museum, augmented by a detailed timeline provided by editor Peter Nisbet. The text of this elegantly produced volume might appeal to a nostalgic alumnus or very specialized historian of German culture in America, but will not give delight to a broader audience. This would explain the book's layout, with its beautiful images up front where they can dazzle.

The images in this book, a cross-section of the museum's collection, will appeal to an art lover interested in modern and contemporary art. Close to ninety-percent of the works displayed were created after 1850 and all come from Germany or German-speaking nations. You'll find works from the Austrian Secession, German expressionism, the Bauhaus and work from contemporary figures such as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys (the museum’s collection of Joseph Beuys' editioned artworks is the world’s most comprehensive). The allure of a book such as this is its unexpected discoveries. For although you'll find work by famous artists over the past century and a half, they are not the works that have become deadened by over-publication in generalized art anthologies. In addition to works by masters, you'll see art by their lesser-known though at times no less meritorious contemporaries, artists that rarely see the light of day due to the narrow pathways of canonization.

It is in this spirit of unexpected discoveries that we are organizing the first Artists of Utah Book Swap. We're looking to bring together used art books from across the state and hoping you’ll find a happy accident as well. Here’s how it works. Find some old books or magazines that are visual arts related (including design, architecture, etc) and donate them to Artists of Utah. You can write the value of your donation off your taxes OR you can opt to use your donation as a credit for our book sale. We will give you a buy back credit of half the sale vaule of your books. We'll be bringing the books together on Saturday May 12 at Saltgrass Printmakers in Salt Lake City (and taking it on the road if it's successful). The proceeds will go to benefit Artists of Utah. Give us a day and we'll have more information here. If you're subscribed to 15 Bytes we'll be sending you a notice.||

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