The Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, a modest-sized gallery snuggled onto the second floor of the Paseo Nuevo mall on busy State Street, isn’t hindered by its small floor plan. Founded in 1976 by art aficionados eager for a gallery devoted solely to contemporary works of all mediums and attitudes, CAF has been especially kind to local artists. The gallery is currently featuring a show titled “The Rocket Four: Artist Books Today,” curated by UCSB book arts professor Harry Reese and his wife, Sandra Reese. The show is an amalgam of four distinct book presses that create various sorts of limited-edition art books. The works of all four publishers incorporate a wide array of material including photography, poetry, painting, and of course the entire gamut of printmaking practices. The Klausner Gallery in the CAF has been sectioned off into four areas, each dedicated to a different press. Turkey Press, operated by the Reeses, produces works that are diverse in breadth, while consistent in their attention to the book as a tactile, aesthetic form. Much of their imagery and text are abstract and exhibit a flair for experimental design and rhythm. Included in their exhibition is a small book of poetry and drawings penned by poet, artist and musical pioneer, Yoko Ono, titled Pennyviews. Arte Dos Grafico press out of Bogota, Colombia, focuses mainly on Spanish-language poetry and historically inspired prints in larger books. New York City’s Kaldewey Press has a distinctly international feel with works in several languages and art including Chinese brush paintings as seen in “The Immortals: Eight Views of the Li River.” Limestone Press of Tampa, Fla., features some of the most colorful and graphically dynamic uses of image and text of the four presses in pieces like Early Auden by Richard Tuttle and Sayings from Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. Artsweek nabbed Harry Reese to gain some insight on the book arts medium and discuss possibilities for its future.
Artsweek: OK, so tell me about the Rocket Four and how you all came together.
Harry Reese: In the summer of 1997, Gunnar Kaldeway, who has a private press and has produced artists’ books for over 20 years now invited a group of his friends and colleagues to come to his home in upstate New York to talk about their work as well as some of the current matters concerning those working in the book arts field. Out of that workshop, four presses came together to work with each other and to exhibit together and the name, “the Rocket Four,” came about because one of the people, Luis Angel Parra, from Bogota, had been using this expression of a rocket taking off. He’d put his hand next to his mouth and lean down to the ground and then lift his hand high in the air with this rocket sound, and he usually did it as an expression of something he really enjoyed, and he told us that’s what his friends did back home when they liked something. It was really fun, and everybody liked it. And it became associated with our time there and the group deciding to show together. We said, “We’re not sure really what to call each other. We’ll call ourselves ‘the Rocket Four.'” Then the opportunities to exhibit the work came up through the different people and places where they’ve lived and worked around the world.
What would you say is the major binding force behind the Rocket Four? Are you held together by common interests, friendship or is it more the desire to create a sort of mutual support system for artists working in similar fields?
When we got together in 1997 we already knew we had something in common and we actually had known each other. I had known Hank Hine from graduate school at Brown University, and I introduced him to Gunnar back in the late ’80s. We were all acquainted with each other’s work from having been in the field for so long. We all had been doing this work on our own for at least 20 years, and, in our own workshop, Sandra and I had been doing work together for 30 years. One of the things that was common to us all was that we all had an interest in literature, but these interests really came about later on. It was more of a friendship at first. There are some things that unite our work and that we have in common; all of us are involved with the production of the work ourselves in our studios. We all do it in different ways, but the production is a matter that concerns us all and we try to control that. We all have collaborative projects with artists, writers, poets, thinkers, and again we all do that each in our own ways. We all select the work and make our editorial choices with probably differently informed approaches in mind.
As you mentioned, a major part of all of your practices involves collaboration with others working in similar and different mediums. What, in your mind, have been some of the most fruitful or enjoyable collaborations you’ve worked on?
I think for all of us, relationships we’ve had with living artists and writers certainly stand out. My press has been primarily that way, but occasionally I’ve had the chance to do some work with someone who’s no longer with us. My work with the poet Michael Hannon has been very gratifying. His work has informed my life quite a bit. I really admire his work. He also has a close association with William T. Wiley. To work with the both of them has been fantastic. I’d say in most cases it has been really gratifying to work with others and it’s brought some interesting and productive things into our lives. Most recently, we had Jonathan Williams here on campus for a visit, and Jonathan is for me a very influential person in contemporary culture, and to have a chance to develop a friendship with him is extraordinary, and we feel very privileged to have that chance to work on productive artistic projects and also have good personal experiences. We also have worked with poet and publisher James Laughlin, who is the founder of New Directions, which he founded back in the 1930s. I think he was probably the most influential literary publisher in the United States in the 20th century. And to have a close friendship with him was a great experience.
You said that one of the things that binds the Rocket Four together as a group is that you all share an investment and interest in producing the books yourselves in your own studios. It certainly does seem characteristic within the practice of book arts for the works to be explicitly handcrafted. With that in mind, how do you see book artists working with or without the increasingly prominent digital technologies of today and the future? Is “going digital” out of the question?
At least as far as these four publishers are concerned, we all find ourselves incorporating digital tools these days. And we find ways for digital work to get into our book projects. The last few projects I’ve worked on have incorporated digital media. We’ll use it, and we have been for some time. In the ’80s I used digital media mainly for word processing. In the early ’90s I used page layout programs and more recently I’ve made digital prints. So I think everybody uses these tools in their own way to provide whatever they want for their projects.
On the Rocket Four’s website, it’s mentioned that part of the group’s desire to come together was based on the possibility of expanding the audience for what you all do as individuals. Where do you think book arts are situated within the contemporary art world as far as an audience? Do you see this audience expanding in the future?
I started teaching at UCSB in the late ’70s, and for the first five years or so when I taught, most of the knowledge about my classes and what my students did in my classes was very much limited to those people in the classes. There was good attendance in the College of Creative Studies, but the knowledge of the work was limited usually to those students and maybe their friends. But then I made the very big step around 1983 of having an exhibit of the work of one of the classes and that was a huge step because the exhibition brought the work to the attention of many more people. I had students from all over campus wanting to make books of their own kind. This kind of thing has happened all around the world with book arts, where what has normally been a non-gallery practice, mostly something that was left for libraries or expositions at a trade fair, became a popular kind of activity for gallery space more and more in the ’60s, ’70s and on into current time, where the exhibit has brought the attention of the book form to many, many people. Exhibits allowed for people to at least see possibilities of the book form, and knowing that something exists will lead you to learn more about it. Audiences have been built, I think, by exhibits more so than anything else.
The book form itself goes so far back in history. But this term “book arts” seems to define something that has occurred fairly recently – a shift or expansion in the ways we think about the book itself and in relation to its practical and aesthetic virtues. How do you think this change relates to both the expansion of what we might consider to be a work of art as well as the increase in choices we now have for obtaining information, with the pervasiveness of things like the Internet, television and such?
I think people love books and want to have them around them. They want to read them, they want to look at them, carry them around. I think there’s a lot to recommend the book as a form. If the book didn’t exist, I think we would want to invent it because it is something we can take with us in an intimate way. I think that these books will be popular in the future much more than they are now. Following the notion that the new technology turns the old technology into an art form, the new technologies will help to make this work more valued and will provide a condition in which these books of the future will be seen. We will see a use of old tools as well as new tools, but the form of the book itself is something that I think will not be exhausted by the new discoveries and new possibilities of communication. I think it will only help this form reach a newer audience and will make more people aware of how important it is to have books in our lives.
We have a calendar of Rocket Four-related events coming up this week. What should we expect, and what are some of the things you’re most excited about?
I’m very pleased to have our visitors come to town to visit our print shop and see our students and talk to them Thursday afternoon. After that, at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, we’ll have a round-table discussion where each of these publishers will be introduced to the campus and community. To have the publishers themselves here is a really great opportunity. We’ll also have Marcia Reed and Joyce Ludmer from the Getty Research Institute, along with Rogue Datslklk Troughio from Stanford University. They’ll be addressing some of these issues about the current state of books from the point of view of people who see a lot of them. Friday, we’re having a talk at the MultiCultural Center, and on Saturday we’ll have a poetry reading inside the gallery. Poetry that has informed these books will be read. I’m having Michael Hannon and David Osman come to town to read, as well as Hank Hine, the publisher of Limestone Press, who is a wonderful poet in his own right.
Sounds like a great series of events. It’s great that we will have the opportunity to be exposed to the work of so many people working in this field across the globe. Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down and talk.
Well, thank you. I also want to say I appreciate the help we’ve gotten around campus to make this happen. I would like to thank David Marshall, Bill Ashby, the university library, Dick Hebdidge, the English Dept., the MultiCultural Center, [the] Latin American and Iberian Studies [program], as well as many other campus and community groups. Sandra and I are very appreciative of the help we get here.
The Rocket Four will be on display at the Contemporary Arts Forum until May 30. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.sbcaf.org or call 966-5373.