In the last ten years, Reed art professor Gerri Ondrizek ramped up the university's commitment to book arts. Portland, one of the most literary cities in the country, is an obvious home for such a collection and fan base, and the small, intimate nature of artist's books lend themselves to passionate collection. Ondrizek, Snyder, and the rest of the collection-builders approached the collection with an eye for the historically significant as well as the genre busting, which is evident in the exhibition.
When mentioning important historical book works, Ed Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip frequently springs to our lips (unfortunately, this book is absent from the show, although Ruscha is represented by seven other pieces). The significance of Every Building pales, however, to the palm-sized Die Idee, 1927, by Belgian artist Frans Masereel. Masereel is credited with creating the first "wordless novel," or giving birth to the contemporary graphic novel. Die Idee, whose contents can be seen page-by-page on a DVD flat screen opposite the original manuscript, is a densely symbolic, high Modernist parable executed in blocky, expressionist woodcuts, which were censored in America through the 1930s.
Moving forward in time, the '60s and '70s are broadly represented by heavyweights such as Chuck Close, John Baldessari, Richard Tuttle, Joseph Kosuth, and the aforementioned Ruscha. A spectacular reprint of a Yayoi Kusama poster promoting one of the fascinating Japanese artist's orgies is one of the most electrifying pieces of the exhibition, masquerading as something as innocuous as a Jefferson Starship handbill.
There is no shortage of Portland book activity, as local artists contributed heavily in both traditional and unconventional ways. Melody Owen, whose poetic sensibilities recall a young Ann Hamilton, has one of the few truly sculptural pieces in the show. A Li Mirau Creba features an antique Corona typewriter, and a weathered, decaying scroll that curls through the machine and climbs the wall, obsessively reading its endless message: "ticktickticktick." Harrell Fletcher makes an appearance, too, with Blot Out the Sun, a filmic adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses as enacted by the staff and customers of Jay's Garage in Southeast Portland.
Impressive additions to Bibliocosmos are various editions and illustrations that local artists have created to accompany famous works of poetry. One of Paul Green's figurative drawings accompanies Robert Lowell's translation of The Abyss by Baudelaire, and Eric Stotik's mesmerizing ink drawings beautifully compliment John Ashbery's The Kaiser's Children.
The contemporary Xerox zine revolution is represented (as well as a few earlier Xerox revolutions). Punkpunk03 is a San Francisco collective whose eight mini-zines come complete with a little purse for storing them, and local artist Alicia Justus photocopies her meticulous original drawings and gouaches into limited edition books such as Infuriated Squirrels and The Return of the Evil Birds.
The only bone of disappointment within Bibliocosmos is one that's endemic to exhibitions of this nature, and is nearly unavoidable. Viewers deeply want to handle these books, to crack their spines and participate in the intimacy for which they were designed. Of course, having everybody's grubby hands all over the books isn't feasible, even with those dainty little white gloves, so Bibliocosmos offers two compromises. DVDs offer views of pages being flipped from many of the books, and there is a large reading table, with mass produced books about book art, mail art, and a few large edition pieces by Raymond Pettibon, Harrell Fletcher, and others. This just made me want to scratch the itch even more, but I had to satisfy myself with intense peering. After two hours in the modest-sized Cooley Gallery, I felt like I had just scraped the surface of the exhibition, and will need the full six-week run to absorb all of the splendor and wonder that is Bibliocosmos. CHAS BOWIE