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Judging Books by their Covers: Reading Surfaces

Is it possible to track the demise of a given medium based on its increasing prevalence in art galleries? Celluloid film and its apparatuses—namely, clattering projectors—are now an abundant facet of contemporary installations. And in 2012, the book, which arguably began its so-called decline when modernism proclaimed its capacity to be deconstructed as a work as far back as the 1920s, seems more and more an aesthetic, rather than functional, object. Toronto’s Mercer Union hosted an exhibition entitled “Out of Print” last year; currently, Halifax’s Dalhousie Art Gallery presents “Unbound: An exhibition in three chapters,” the final part of which has artist and former librarian John Murchie shredding the equivalent of the gallery’s paper archive.

“Judging Books by their Covers” is a concurrent offering at Montreal’s SBC galerie d’art contemporain. In his exhibition statement, curator Peter White insists that this is not about “the current transition to publishing in digital form.” If that statement has hints of disingenuousness, it makes a rather comforting, compelling argument: that the beauty that comes with a formal design or graphic interpretation around a book is often a separate pleasure from that which comes from consuming it.

It’s also worth noting that “Judging Books by their Covers” would have come across as retro 10 years ago: its focus is mid-century design. A stunning contribution here is Lorraine Oades’ suite from 1996 to 1998 (note the date), Painted Theories of Modern Art, for which she makes a grid of small paintings replicating classic covers of art, philosophy and literary titles by Jean Cocteau, Djuna Barnes and Immanuel Kant, among others. (Compare and contrast with Roula Partheniou’s similar project in Mercer’s “Out of Print.”) Gayle Johnson’s Facts and Fictions series (again, from 1992 and 1993, predating e-books) is as gorgeous as Oades’: gouache-on-masonite recreations of pulp-fiction covers, with meticulous replications of their creases and sundry wear and tear.

In this vein are selections from R.B. Kitaj’s 1969 series In Our Time, for which he reproduced book covers as screenprints in an expression of classic graphic-design sensibilities as well as his own personal reading taste. Hans-Peter Feldmann and Marc Joseph Berg both offer photographs of books, suggesting the role of the volume as home decor and retail accessory respectively, and in turn the sublimation of the intellectual into the material and vice versa—which is, of course, one of contemporary art’s main preoccupations.

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