ESSAYS

Essay Excerpt of "EPIC" Solo Exhibition at The Contemporary Museum Biennial of Hawaii Artists 2005

“As one who loves books, and the imaginative worlds to which book contents lure their readers, I am drawn to the physicality of the book, as familiar object, medium, and archetypal form.”

In a world in which books–-real books, of paper and board, text and image; that one can hold in the hand and enter with the mind–-may be members of an endangered category of objects, sculptor Jacqueline Rush Lee works to preserve the books she loves, or at least the idea of books, as portals to other worlds. Lee understands both the literal and symbolic power of the book, and the way it not only encodes knowledge but condenses time and space. 

Lee came to love books early in her life, and remembers making books and scrolls with her own stories as a child. It would not be until later in life that she would return to an engagement with books as something more than vehicles of information.

Intuitively drawn to the physicality of her materials, Lee has been able to learn quickly, through direct experience and experimentation, about the structural properties of things, and about their potential as vessels of meaning. Often, Lee’s approach is to push the technical aspects of a given medium, finding that she is as much guided by, as in control of, her materials. The occurrence of what might be considered accidents or mistakes are understood by Lee to be signposts that lead the way to new terrain.

In 1998, in an earlier series of work that also related to the book form, Lee employed the process of kiln firing, an integral aspect of work in ceramics, to transform individual books. Taken through a slow process of heating until reaching a high temperature in a reduction environment, expanding as the temperature rose, a book would not be burned to a pile of ash as one might expect but would be petrified, changed into a surprisingly stable though fragile structure that looked much like a pale ghost of its former self, sometimes even retaining traces of text. In her thesis exhibition Ex Libris, Lee subsequently took one of those petrified volumes and allowed it to slowly decompose in a tank of water, revealing another stage in the process of transformation. In the context of an exhibition that also included rubber casts of book spines (one of several ways in which book structure and human anatomy overlap), Lee’s use of the book form in its more ephemeral manifestations carried intimations of human memory and mortality.

In Volumes, another series of work developed for a solo exhibition in 2002, Lee created a series of large wheel-like circular forms in which old books (their covers removed for greater pliability) were bound tightly together like the concentric growth rings in sections of tree trunks. Soaked and then re-dried, the edges of these whorls of paper, sometimes stained with soft bleeding colors, would warp and unfurl. The cross-referential aspect of the work (much paper pulp coming from trees harvested for that purpose) would emerge as one of several ways in which book-as-subject, Lee’s formative processes, and the iconographic potential of her sculptures would become linked.

In these earlier series of works, Lee made use of old books, from fiction to encyclopedias, representing a broad range of subject matter that she regularly gathered mostly from library sales. For Lee, a lifelong lover of found objects of all kinds, these raw materials come already invested with a wealth of associations. Books are intimate objects, not simply by virtue of their scale, but because they have passed through the hands of so many others, known and unknown, who have perhaps in some way left a bit of themselves between the pages–-from a notation written in the margins, or a fragment of paper tucked inside, to something less tangible, but no less real. Books provide repositories for knowledge and history; they also contain their own histories of use. Entering a book involves a kind of archaeology of texts, of reading and readers.  

In developing Epic, her current series of work that includes three separate groupings, Lee has developed yet another way of working, a process of sculptural casting she calls “Impresco,” merging the connotations carried by the terms “impression” and “fresco.” Lee thus moves from books as printed matter to the residual imprints made by books in the casting process. Lee also brings into play the many associations linked to the term “scape,” which may connote an aspect of the natural environment, or something more abstract and conceptual.

In Epic: Impresco Scapes, Volume I, forty panels are arranged in a loose mosaic of images. Several panels are untitled; others carry evocative designations, including Obfuscape in shell pink, Zenscape, and Cloudscape for Anonymous. Epic: Impresco Scapes, Volume II is comprised of six panels that make more specific allusion to landscape, with horizontal bands of softly modulated color. Lee returns to the circular forms created earlier for the Volumes series from 2002, using a smaller-scale version to create the third section of Epic, twelve panels subtitled Sculpographies. Here the concentric rings of pages, visible in deep relief, suggest unusual geological formations, or aerial views of ancient craters.

Each panel, unique in its particular configuration, has been cast from parts of one or more books with the technique that Lee has developed. Within a shallow wooden box, she pours a layer of gypsum cement (hydrastone), a high-grade plaster material. Into that material, while still soft and wet, books are pressed: a stack of paperbacks tied together will leave a delicate linear imprint of their fore-edges; an unbound spine will transfer the pattern of its sewing; an old cover, bound in red bookcloth, will bleed slowly as it reacts with the wet plaster. When the plaster has set up, the books can be removed, leaving behind their concave imprints, and perhaps a bit of color, a layer of paper, or threads from frayed binding. These residual images, within the frame of cool white plaster, have an elusive but compelling aura, like the poignant memory of a dream, or the visual echo of a half-remembered poem. Each by itself has an exquisite intimacy; together they form a kind of open-ended narrative, a musing on things we have possessed and lost, and things we have let go, only to have them return in another time, another form. 

                                                                                                                          Contributing Writer Marcia Morse, 2005