Right now at Auckland City Libraries you can see some of the best in handcrafted book arts in New Zealand. Internationally recognised book artists such as Elizabeth Steiner and Barbara Schmelzer are showing some of their recent work. So are 27 other members of the Association of Book Crafts New Zealand, including me. At the top of the escalators on the third floor the books are being displayed in 10 or so glass cabinets, which means you can't touch them. The cabinets are very full of 88 pieces, but only in a couple of instances did I feel like they were too cramped to give each book a fair showing. In several cases, mirrors have been placed so that you can view the inside of the book as well as the cover.
The exhibition gives a sense of the diversity flowering forth in New Zealand book arts. Traditional fine book binding and restoration are represented but do not dominate. Most exhibitors have embraced contemporary and innovative book structures, materials and techniques. I was particularly excited by the number of books with content, mostly images, but also text. Overall it's a colourful and stimulating exhibition, that is worth lingering with.
What did I especially like? Elizabeth Steiner's Standing Tall was magnificent. Obviously inspired by Daniel Essig's work (seen on the cover of the luscious Penland Book of Handmade Books), she has bound (empty) teabags in long board covers which, when opened right out, serve as a pedestal for a thick halo of softly stained pages. Another of my favourite NZ book artists, Ann Bell, has a number of beautiful, scultpural works, including a rainbow Flag Book (after Heidi Kyle) that is simple and delightful. Also using a rainbow of brightly coloured paper to delicious effect is Dianne Sanders, with Jacob's Book Sayings, a Jacob's ladder structure in which I caught a tantalising glimpse of text on the pages which hinted at poetry or proverbs. I saw Marama Warren's Matariki Haiku at the Book Works exhibition at North Arts recently and was just as delighted this time with the delicate texture, organic colours, sculptural shapes and sophisticated multicultural layers of meaning. Marama's waterfall book, To Still the Mind, is also as dense with meaning as it is with colour and texture. Julienne Francis is clearly an artist who makes classy concertina books with beautiful etchings, her Swimming with My Mother is evocative and tender yet unsentimental .
What wasn't so great? Well, personally, I find heavily embellished books remind me too much of scrapbooking (which commodifies creative expression, like a paint-by-numbness, I mean, -numbers). Fortunately not too many of the exhibitors got carried away by the attractions of pre-printed craft paper and lavish beading. There are a few books which I think wouldn't have made it into a juried exhibition. Either because the quality of their execution does not live up to the concept, or because the concept is so drab that immaculate craftsmanship is not enough to interest the viewer. But there is nothing so tacky, or shoddy, or boring, that it pulls the whole exhibition down. Compared the the Book Works exhibition in Northcote a couple of months ago, this is overall a much stronger showing of what's excellent in the book arts in this country.
Handmade Books: A National Exhibition is on at Auckland City Library until 2 October. If you can, check it out. By the way, most of the books are for sale, (and two of mine have already got the sticker!).