Monday, May 4, 2015
Barbara Page's Encounters with History
"My book marks project asks you to imagine all the most significant books you have read and what made an impression on you,” says visual artist Barbara Page. I've been intrigued by our perception of the passage of time since childhood and I've been figuring out how to transform this concept into imagery. For this project I started listing memorable books I read as a child, working up to the present, a span of 65 years.”
Fortunately, Barbara has kept a journal since 1982 in which she records her reading history, making the task somewhat easier. She’s been working on the project on and off for five years, using library charge cards. After writing the title and author in neat librarian's hand, she illustrates each with drawings, collage and rubber stamp images representing her memories.
The project has been very much a journey of self-discovery, but as Barbara realized, also so much more. The project raises the question: how do we catalogue and classify knowledge. There's the Dewey Decimal System and systems used by the Library of Congress and Thomas Jefferson, but Barbara is trying to figure out what works for her. "Of course with non-fiction arranging cards by subject is the obvious solution. If you do it this way, you can really tell what a person's interests are,” she says.
Arranged chronologically, the books provide an insightful view of the history of American social culture of the past 50 years. So, in the late 60’s early 70s when she was a young naive (by her description) housewife in Berkeley, she read Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique along with many other seminal works of the era.
A system for arranging the cards for fiction is her challenge of the moment. "You can't really do it by topic because you're eliminating a lot of the stuff that the book is about. Do I do it from an artistic point of view ordering cards by how they look together, which is not how a literary person would do it, or in alphabetical order by author’s last name as libraries typically do?”
Her cards are wonderful, inventive little tableaux. One of the things I like about the piece as a whole is it has this fluidity of resonance. The individual pieces remain the same (and on their own they are little stand-alone gems) but different arrangements alter the overall meaning. So far, Barbara has assembled enough cards to fill up an old two-drawer library file case. She is hoping to make the card collection into a book—a very personal history.
She's done this kind of history project before. Her remarkable Rock of Ages Sands of Time, which began as her own exploration into time, but evolved into a commission for the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, NY seeks to convey the history of life on earth. Like the famous Saul Steinberg image of a New Yorker's view of the world, we typically see recorded history and then this jumbled together and compressed blur of time. Barbara painted 544 panels, each representing the passage of a million years. "We're so casual about destroying species and the environment. I wanted to give a sense of how long it took to get to where we are." The 11" x 11" panels from which the book is composed are installed in a special trapezoidal wing of the museum, arranged in geological time with the present era at the top, the earliest at the bottom. Laid end to end they measure over 500'!
One thing Barbara loves about being an artist is it forces her to explore all sorts of areas outside her knowledge base. Before she undertook the Rock of Ages project, she knew nothing about geology or paleontology, but she read up and taught herself what she needed to know. Now, she regularly gets commissions for her science-based work.
At VCCA Barbara was working on one such commission for the State University of New York at Cortland, NY (SUNY Cortland). The 15-panel work presents a view from the top of the science building as it would have looked 19,000 years ago looking up the Tully Valley towards Syracuse, NY. The piece required significant research to figure out what the land looked like. "My parameters were I had to do the contours of the hills. These would have been gravel piles back then. There weren't any trees on account of receding glaciers. I was interested in presenting a weird diorama effect, intentionally making the painted background a lot less real — more theatrical and over the top, than the foreground." She never paints clouds and animals and approaching the work in this way, as a kind of diorama parody, made it possible for her to embrace them.
The separate panels, spaced an inch apart are meant to suggest snapshots. Fracturing them also adds a contemporary edge. Interestingly, it turns out that the piece itself is a kind of a timeline. The landscape is more barren on the side near the glacier, and more full of life on the other side.
Barbara did three weeks of research in advance of coming to VCCA. She says at home with all the quotidian interruptions, it would have taken four months to complete, but she was able to finish it while in residence for four weeks.
"As a visual artist, I like very much working across disciplines," she says. "I love the quality of paint and playing with colors, but it really doesn’t mean that much to me until I have content. I want to reach out to a broader audience than those who frequent art galleries and so I try and work on a platform that will have a broader appeal to the public in general.” Her historical approach enables her to explore a broad range of topics enriching both her creative experience and the experience of the viewer.