In late August, Mrs. Olana and I went to Mass MOCA in North Adams MA. Once a prospering town with many factories, North Adams is the gritty blue collar neighbor to the lovely, academic Williamstown MA. Mass MOCA has helped to transform this town’s economy, lifting it from its position as one of the poorest towns in the state.
Although we went to see the monumental Phoenix sculptures of Xu Bing, as often happens, it is an unexpected exhibition that captures one’s imagination. Such was the case that day when we stumbled upon Life’s Work: Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera. These two artists, a generation and a continent apart, have each created a long term body of work based on a text of 19C book.
For over 40 years, British artist Tom Phillips, OBE RA, has been working on and exhibiting “A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. This altered book began in 1966 with the purchase of an obscure Victorian novel “A Human Document” by W. H. Mallock, 1892. It doesn’t take a genius to understand it began with the amalgamation of the words of the title.
Phillips began changing the individual pages of the novel with watercolors, gauche, pen and ink and collage. But first he would select which words would remain on the page. These words and phrases became the text poem of the book.
Over the years, Phillips has altered the original pages again and again. At Mass MOCA these pages – the original, the first edition and the subsequent alterations, over 1000 pages, are exhibited in long enfilades around a rectangular space.
It is utterly absorbing to find the words in the original text and then follow his creative journey into an altered page and then another altered version sometimes completely different, sometimes only slightly different. In this group, the blank pages haven’t been transformed again.
What drew me to this exhibit (ha ha, no pun intended) was the ever-inventive and creative use of the space on the pages. We arrived at this exhibit mid-stream as it were with nothing to guide us. Slowly the penny dropped, and by the time we worked our way to the beginning, we had worked out some of what was going on. Interestingly enough in the Phillips’ book, the Author’s Preface reads: “Hoping that the reader would want to meet the book head on I have put the introduction at the end”. So he would have been pleased we jumped in!
There is no dominant graphic style as you can see from these few illustrations which convey the meaning of the text visible. For a page reacting to the events of 9/11, Phillips searched for a page containing the words nine and eleven in that order with which to create the message. Articles the The Guardian (UK) and the Boston Globe bring more of this fascinating artistic journey to light.
The gallery also held huge sails printed with Maryland artist John Carrera’s reworking of the 19C engraving plates of Webster’s Dictionary. Carrera’s Pictorial Webster’s features the cleaned and restored plates (given to Yale University in 1977) juxtaposed to create a new lexicon for the 21C.
Also titled “A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities”, the plates run from A: Aardvark, Abaculus… Abdominal regions as on this page to Z: Zaphrentis, Zeuglodon, Zither….Zoanthus. Sounds like good Scrabble fodder to me.
Follow the project on The Making of Pictorial Websters www.youtube.com/watch?v=vj4zL4UN0Gc
These two very different projects in the hands of fine artists make an interesting point about what Mass MOCA calls “a life’s work, a project that an artist continually goes back to and that becomes both a trace of that work and a career.” A return trip is already on my calendar!