Visually interesting, strikingly beautiful, cleverly assembled—these are not usually how we describe books. But if we consider them as art objects as well as text, their aesthetic qualities and their craftsmanship become manifest. Think of the uniformity of a library shelf of book spines. Then think of the colours, shapes and textures of different-sized hand-made books: sewn, glued, stitched, cut out or folded; hand written, rubber stamped or hand set.
In the current retrospective at the WAG, curator Rebecca Korn has chosen a sampling of the staggering variety of art books made by Lise Melhorn-Boe. Visitors will see pop-up books, shuffle books, accordion folds, flag books, buttoned books and zippered books, with pages made of paper created from fabric, pages of fabric itself, pages of literally garbage and, intriguingly, hand-sewn clothing as “pages” for text.
“Connection: Forty Years of Artist’s Books 1979-2019” is organized according to decades and follows Lise’s life trajectory, from her interest in gender politics, to the birth of her son and her interest in the socialization of children, to her breast cancer and concerns surrounding environmental degradation. The connection referred to in the exhibition title also includes Lise’s connection to family, in particular her mother Pauline, a painter, and her father Kurt, an electrical contractor.
Although many of the works on display reference aspects of her parents’ lives, Lise’s most striking “book” about Pauline and Kurt is actually an installation called Ghost Costumes (1996-1997). Made of curtain sheers and hanging in a semi-circle from the ceiling are a child’s blouse, a teenager’s dress from the 20s, various coats and suits, including an air force uniform, day dresses, and a simple wedding dress. They gently turn as viewers pass. Opposite, grounded against a wall of limestone hang a row of men’s muslin work clothes. Whereas the text inside the feather-light transparent pieces talks about Pauline’s unfulfilled aspirations (taken from a taped interview), Kurt’s belted overalls with hats and a linesman’s rope reveal only photo-transferred images of his work environment during a succession of projects. These are work sites that Kurt, proud as he was of his accomplishments, had professional photographers document. An expression of the yin/yang dynamic in Lise’s parents’ relationship, these costumes also reflect the gender norms of the early to mid 20th century.
Lise likes digging into themes, sometimes for years. In 1989 she conceived a shuffle book called Anything Can Happen, which plays with ideas surrounding gender and feminist beliefs. She began by making a series of 26 two-sided 5-1/2 by 8-1/2 cards comprising text collaged onto images, both cut from fashion magazines. These she photocopied in black and white. By rearranging individual sheets, love stories could be created. In 2010 she photocopied the same series in colour. With a multitude of verbs, conjunctions and phrases such as “It’s hard for him to resist”, “sexual dead spots”, “& the political woman”, the love stories have endless potential for today’s gallery goers. In Sleeping Beauty (2000), a clever and funny pop-up composed again of fashion images, Lise explores the role of the sexes through the well-known Grimm’s fairy tale.
Early in the first decade of this century, Lise overcame breast cancer, which left her wondering about the toxic effect of chemicals in our environment in general and, more specifically, in her own work space 20 years earlier at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she had been producing large editions of hand-set and hand-printed books in a non-ventilated basement room. Body Map (2007) is a revealing and deeply personal work in poster format, but a book when folded. In it we see a full frontal of Lise in what could be interpreted as a victory pose. Every inch of her body and the background is covered in hand-printed, different-coloured text, laid down in patterns that define the body’s shape and outlines. Perhaps shocking to some, but certainly visually pleasing, and not without humour (the white moustache), the piece chronicles the experiences of Lise’s body parts over time, health-wise and in an environmental context.
An accordion book called Homeless (2008) sits open along a shelf spanning the gallery’s dark grey wall. Lise took photographs of the houses on her block when she lived in North Bay, cut them into pieces from a template of shapes for a Little House quilt pattern, and then, using a blanket stitch, created a graphic representation of a row of similar-looking houses. The inspiration for this book and the contents of the text came from statistics citing the high number of people with chemical sensitivities who have been homeless at some point in their lives. In its cozy simplicity the book emits a sense of both security and lurking danger. Lise herself had to leave her home because it was making her sick. And she stitched this piece while she was in hospital with her son, who had sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident.
Diffuse Axonal Injury (2008), a piece I call “the egg book”, expresses Lise’s attempt to come to terms with her son’s injury, coma and five months in hospital and rehabilitation. The egg shape is, in fact, a mould of a brain that has been cracked open to reveal its inner workings—which were not working. The web of multi-coloured strings inside could symbolize confused neurons, while the pink silk ribbons used to pull the two sides together are a reminder of the brain’s fragility and preciousness, and perhaps Lise’s wish to make it whole again.
“What’s your favourite book in the show?” I asked Lise as we circumnavigated the gallery, me in green cotton mask following two metres behind Lise in pink seersucker mask. She pointed to a piece set along the gallery windowsill. Made in 2002, it comprises photos and cut-outs of clothing reminiscent of paper dolls. And it comes with a story. After her dad died, in his office Lise found a brown envelope marked “girls I have Known”, which became the title of the book. The envelope contained photographs of at least 15 women, singly and in groups, mostly not identified. One, living in Munich after the war, let Kurt know she was interested in marriage. Kurt was, apparently, a charmer and didn’t marry until he was 50. Lise knew he had had many girlfriends. In choosing to make this piece a flag book, she succeeds in creating a parade of women and fashion throughout the decades, from the 20s through the 40s, when shorter skirts and pants made an appearance, and ending in the Dior dresses of the 50s. The last woman is Lise’s mother, Pauline.
(Photo of Lise by Chris Miner)
“Connections: Forty Years of Artist’s Books 1979-2019” continues until June 24. There will be no reception, but Lise will be present every Sunday afternoon from 12 to 4 while the show is up.
Ulrike Bender is a former graphic designer, art director and ESL teacher who, in retirement, has ventured into photography. She is currently a volunteer gallery assistant at the WAG and a docent at Agnes.