By Annette Hinkle
On its surface, a book looks like a fairly simple object. But crack one open and you just might find a tool with transformative powers. Between the covers of a good book it’s possible to discover the essence of emotion, beauty, compassion or suspense. A book can be wholly meditative or a call to action.
For artist Mary Ellen Bartley, books are nothing short of pure inspiration. But for Bartley, it’s not what lies between the pages that is most important, rather it’s the form of the external package itself.
Ms. Bartley took top honors in Guild Hall’s 74th Artist Members Exhibition in 2012 and as a result, has been given a solo exhibition, “Leaning Above the Page,” which will be on view at Guild Hall through January 4. Included in the show are 19 images from five of Ms. Bartley’s ongoing photographic series — Standing Open, Paperbacks, Sea Change, Blue Books and Push 2 Stops. This Saturday, Ms. Bartley will host a gallery talk about her work at Guild Hall at 2 p.m.
All the photographs in the show were taken between 2004 and 2014 and while books are the overarching theme of Ms. Bartley’s imagery, she does not reveal titles or context in her work. Instead, she prefers to offer views of books stacked atop one another, lined up side by side, or viewed up close with pages slightly fanned. In these instances the imagery references the sculptural form books assume when viewed externally from various perspectives.
“Leaning Above the Page,” the show’s title, is inspired by the Wallace Stevens poem “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm.” The poem evokes the notion of understanding that can be had by slowing down, disconnecting from life’s external noise and simply allowing a good book to do its job through silent bonding.
“It’s the idea that within a situation of quiet and calm, there is the space and the time to try and find connection and meaning,” explains Ms. Bartley. “In this case, Stevens talks about a book, but it can also be art. It’s about receptivity, wanting to have the connection, that perfection of thought on a summer night, a unity with the art or the book.”
“To me, it’s so important,” says Ms. Bartley. “Looking at something slowly and carefully, reading something in a quiet house, finding meaning by going to see art or reading a book.”
“The form of the poem and its use of repetition induce a calm state,” she adds. “I try to do that in my photos.”
Ms. Bartley’s photographs capture the quiet complexity that all books potentially hold — be it through the varied hues of white found in the pages of a stack of paperbacks or the blue and green hardcovers which appear nearly painterly in her artistic treatment of them.
“I think an interesting thing about these images is they’re very much about suppressing the content and muting it,” she says.
When asked how she came upon the idea of using books as subjects, Ms. Bartley explains:
“I was looking for a still life subject I could photograph for an extended period of time and look at in different ways again and again,” she says. “That was in my mind, because I had gone to the Giorgio Morandi show at the Met in 2008. It was the first time that many of his paintings were seen together. I said, ‘I have to go and find my still life subject.’”
But after experimenting with a variety of objects in her photography, Ms. Bartley was less than thrilled with the results. Then, while visiting a friend, she came across a seemingly mundane tableau which she felt had a world of possibility.
It was a stack of paperback books.
“My friend’s daughter went to Horace Mann and had piles of her books from school stacked up, a few had the black remainder lines on the pages left from booksellers. It looked like a painting or sculpture.”
One of the main reasons Ms. Bartley was so attracted to books as subjects is the endless number of ways she envisioned being able to expand on the theme.
“When you have a routine, time, space, and the momentum of ideas, you start to create series and one leads to another,” she explains. “There’s a portal to that next idea and it comes from doing the work every day.”
In addition to the Paperback series of white pages against white backgrounds, there has been the Blue Books series and the Standing Open Series — which details the striking pages of art books by Agnes Martin and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Ms. Bartley has also expanded into the realm of her own previous work through Sea Change and Push 2 Stops, an intriguing series that references Bartley’s former life as a commercial photographer.
The white and gray translucent squares in the images in Push 2 Stops are actually acetate sleeves which were once used to store the transparencies from Ms. Bartley’s commercial work. Photographed through a light box, the empty sleeves became the subject of the series after Ms. Bartley came across them while sorting through 20 years worth of old film she had kept in a local storage facility.
“They raised the rent and I thought, ‘I should not be keeping this,’” explains Ms. Bartley who tossed the transparencies but kept the sleeves. “People who did photography years ago recognize what they are right away.”
And by working in series, Ms. Bartley is in the process of transitioning to yet another form in her work — book production. As part of “Leaning Above the Page,” Ms. Bartley has produced a catalog featuring the exhibit’s imagery along with the Wallace Stevens poem and an interview with Ms. Bartley conducted by fellow artist Ross Bleckner.
“I feel like it’s a natural next step,” she says of book production. “It’s more collaborative and not just me in my studio. I want to create the physical books, to hold them.”
“There’s a whole community of people who make books, read books and collect books,” she adds. “It’s like being a foodie —people are so invested in it.”
Mary Ellen Bartley: Leaning Above the Page runs through Sunday, January 4 at the Museum at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. This Saturday, November 1 at 2 p.m. Mary Ellen Bartley offers a Gallery Talk about her work at the museum. Call (631) 324-0806 or visit GuildHall.org for more information.?