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The Handmade's Tale 

“Limited Reading Required” turns the page on books as art.

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A sad irony exists when handmade books are exhibited in art galleries. While they can be rich vehicles for expression and more sophisticated in form than commercial books, the delicate nature of their one-of-a-kind or small-edition construction doesn't suit high-traffic handling. As a result, galleries sometimes forbid readers and viewers from touching handmade books even though their creators designed them to be held and manipulated.

Such is the case for “Limited Reading Required,” Main Art Gallery's exhibition featuring books by 10 artists. Titled to refer to the image-heavy orientation of most of its offerings, the exhibit also unfortunately suggests the limits imposed on reader and viewer access.

Yet despite this frustrating predicament, “Limited Reading Required” sensitively displays books, ranging from wildly complex pop-ups by Juniper Tangpuz, which are especially tempting to pick up and operate, and David Burton, to the quiet, handmade paper and letterpress constructions by Kerri Cushman, to emphasize the extent to which artists can lead a viewer through a gradual unfolding of experience. With these 20-some books, the possibility for discovery is evident even though actual discovery is discouraged.

Thankfully, about half of these books can be “read” as they are displayed. The deconstructed book “Deep Understreet Lane,” by Kevin Kelly and Rebecca Davis-Kelly, subverts the conventional reading experience by presenting separate crafted objects that represent various elements of a book. No turning or pulling of pages is required. The title page and story illustrations are discreet sculptural elements, as are pages of rhyming narrative verse written by the artists. Although only a portion of the book is represented here (a much larger space would be required to install it in its entirety), it stands out for its rigorous and unexpected development of visual and literary content. While most artists of mechanical books design a conventional or “bookish” exterior to house an “unbookish” core, Kelly and Davis-Kelly have reversed the approach to create a new vehicle for storytelling.

Since the first books of many readers were mechanical books (remember “Pat the Bunny”?) it's not surprising that several of the books on display try to recreate the fun of opening and operating pages designed to surprise. In her accordion book, “Makeshift Mantle,” which opens into an exaggerated horizontal, Sarah Watson strings images of mantelpiece items such as family photos, bric-a-brac and a pop-up mounting of animal horns. Styled as midcentury comics or coloring books, “Makeshift Mantle” and her elaborate “Build Your Own Pop-up Shipwreck” nostalgically celebrate children's imaginations while mourning the near extinction of pulp activity books.

With sales of electronic books outnumbering books in print (Noah Scalin commemorates this fact in his entry, “July 19, 2010,” which depicts a book sinking in a sea of pages), handmade books may seem doomed to readers and viewers who don't actively participate in reading them. But to the person who experiences these books by touching and unraveling them, facsimiles will never pose a threat. Galleries be warned.  S 

“Limited Reading Required: A Collection of Pop-up, Sculptural, and Movable Books” is on display at Main Art Gallery, 1537 W. Main St., until Oct. 30. View information at www.mainartsupply.com.

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