ArtLayers of meaning between pages

ENGROSSED: Installation view, Brigita Ozolins The Secretary (detail) 2014. Photo: Simon OzolinsBOOKS these days have serious competition. Yet the book is a crucial building block of our civilisation, since for at least the past 500 years a growing torrent of books has documented discoveries, created history and fed the imaginative lives of more and more of the world’s population.
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At Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery until October 15 Meryl Ryan has created a superb exhibition, Book Club, which takes this fundamental saga as basis for the work of 11 contemporary artists who celebrate or subvert the book as a physical object. It brings together many extraordinary works; vivid metaphors and surreal objects.

SIMRYN GILL: Four Atlases of the World and One of Stars, 2009. Image: Utopia Art Sydney

In Deidre Brollo’s elaborately constructed library, books are repositories of almost forgotten knowledge. In the other large installation by Brigita Ozolins, familiar from her work at MONA, walls and floor are densely covered with thousands of discarded printed pages, while a sightless secretary adds to the pile.

Ahn Wells, in a surprising new trajectory, makes an autobiographical paper quilt, a patchwork of scraps from diaries and notebooks on one side with fragments of untranslated Korean text from a childhood book on the reverse.

Julie Gough from Tasmania and Archie Moore from Queensland place the book in a colonial context, correcting the white assumptions of old school history books and miniaturising the role of the missions.

The book is a central and symbol-laden object in the work of William Kentridge. This celebrated South African artist often works with printed text, subverting with superimposed moving images, contrasting the inert with living things. Burgeoning painted trees dominate the newsprint in a layered metaphor. Several sculptural pieces interpret how our brains function like an ill-catalogued library.

An even more radical comment on our use of books as imaginative fuel comes from Simryn Gill. Books are transformed into quixotic objects, with a group of atlases pulped and moulded into terrestrial globes and a favourite novel, the corrosive Bell Jar of Sylvia Plath, torn into strips and rolled into 21 strings of spherical beads.

How would one feel wearing that painful semi-autobiography? Do we really assimilate the books we treasure?

As this mind-blowing exhibition demonstrates, books and the printed word make facts, but also feed some other fundamental hunger.

TILLEY’S TEXTAN exhibition within the main exhibition focuses on Lezlie Tilley’s most recent work, using text to create visual patterns. In recent years she has expanded a long-term interest in text into augmented books and into projects where blocking out a single recurring letter creates arbitrary patterns, which now she extrapolates into musical notation. The individual cancelled letters become notes on a stave which, translated into a performable score, can be heard in the gallery. A mundane page becomes sequences of sound reminiscent of Philip Glass and John Cage, the Glass Cage of the exhibition’s title.

As we expect from this artist, the reworked texts are meticulously represented, the sequences building momentum. The combination of elaborately planned detail and complete chance is mesmerising for the viewer and for the artist, taking her ongoing passion for manipulating paper into a whole new realm. Few artists have the imaginative concentration to keep their work constantly evolving, let alone making this leap from sight to sound. Why not dance?

FORMIDABLE CULLENTHE Cooks Hill Galleries’ recent showing of graphics by the late Adam Cullen somehow slipped beneath the radar. He has established a formidable reputation, but it is hard to imagine his casually brutal images in a domestic environment. Works on paper show more respect for both medium and expressive line.

Meanwhile, Gavin Fry paints iconic Newcastle, where obsessively detailed facades are set amid swirling abstract chaos. It’s genuinely surreal.

STRONG BLENDAT Back to Back Galleries until September 24 is a celebration of ceramics.

Nicola Purcell’s classically thrown teapots reveal intensive training and a strong sense of surface design. Jo Davies uses terracotta for simple pasta bowls.

Tracie Bertram’s mosaic-covered objects continue to harvest her fertile visual imagination and craft knowledge in a series of fantastic flamboyant forms.

Elizabeth Treadwell Newman supplies unfettered madness in totem poles and pincushions, while Sandra Shaw’s silken velvet fabrics are a further example of perfected craftsmanship.

This is a strong show.

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