The American poet, Amy Lowell (1874-1925), once noted that “All books are either dreams or swords” and in the case of Dianne Fogwell’s artists books, they are both.1
In Dianne Fogwell’s voluminous and varied oeuvre, artists books occupy a significant position. Although her earliest extant artists book may date from about 1978 or 1979, and consists of eight long strips of Magnani paper stapled together at one end, all of the others, about fifty of them, date from the past twelve years, between 1989 and 2001.
Johanna Drucker, in what has become a landmark publication, argues that the artists book “is the quintessential 20th century art form”. 2 In the art of Dianne Fogwell, the artists book does not slot into some convenient definition. In some of her more accomplished pieces, such as her Voyelles – 24 years, 1988, with the exquisite letterpress printing by Thierry Bouchard, and the lavish Orpheus. Beyond the poem before the memory fades, 1996, one can think of the classic tradition of the livre d’artiste associated with such names as Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiller, but these limited edition, beautifully crafted books are very much the exception in her practice.
The overwhelming majority of Dianne Fogwell’s artists books are one offs, unique creations, frequently assembled from scavenged materials in response to a particular situation. One prominent artist described them as being characterised through their “ragged and improvised informality”. 3 They are diaristic and self-reflexive, at times caught up in outpourings of angst, frustration and anger, on other occasions full of erotic passion or lost within a labyrinth of daydreams. When looking through these highly personal objects, the viewer not only senses a great intimacy, but there is something voyeuristic about the experience. It is not a totally comfortable feeling, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder as if to ask whether it was alright that I was privy to these intensely cathartic creative moments. It is as if many of these objects were created at moments when the artist felt that she could confide her most passionate dreams only to these silent witnesses.
In one book, Family portrait: ‘Words are in the air’, 2001, she writes “On any day it starts the same. Nothing changes. Nothing changes. Nothing changes, nothing changes. Nothing changes, nothing changes. Nothing changes, nothing changes.” Accompanied by Polaroid colour family snaps, taken by her eleven year old son Reuben, who is a frequent collaborator in her artistic projects, this concertina book evokes a palpable tension as the drama of nothingness unfolds. It is a carefully crafted object of miniature proportions which slips into its own case.
In another of her artists books, The night is crowded, 1993, we are introduced to the intimacy of love making, where erotic gouache and pen and ink drawings are supplemented by a Letraset text with such pillow murmurings as “be gentle” and “even as i dream i can’t hate you”. On occasions we encounter whole journeys of discovery into the territory of penis envy, as in her She wears it, 1991, where the study of penises and of pubic hair is in the form of pen and ink sketches accompanied by collage and cut-outs. This tiny book comes complete with its own brown paper envelop.
Juvenile punk humour erodes any possible seriousness of intent in her It’s my party, 1993, where within a triangular box, neatly screwed into a party hat, is a series of rubber balloons with their cheeky greetings. In another, undated piece, Get the gun and run, the sexually quirky is united with wacky humour, as within a cloth covered box lies a candle, gold ring, and matches together with digitally manipulated images and a Letraset text.
In a number of her other artists books the erotic daydream gives way to the avenging sword of frustration and feminist anger. In the beautifully presented The price of service, 1999, the book adopts the form of a box a cutlery. Inside the box a text announces: “She glances up …”, while on each of the cardboard knives, the inscription reads “and so she cuts”. The play on words, games with concepts and expectations, are all characteristic of this artist’s work. If in her prints, which now run to about 268 limited editions, there is a whimsicality in which a Chagallian fantasy world collides with other realities, in her artists books dreams and swords combine to form a mirror of the intimate workings of the soul.
As with a number of artists who make artists books, Dianne Fogwell is quick to assert that rumours concerning the book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. What is less predictable is the shape of her books. In her work, ‘books’ which appear suspended within a plastic compact disk cover easily outnumber those composed of sheets of paper which obediently live between hard covers. Wonderful tactile handmade papers by Katharine Nix or pieces of rag and cloth bound together by the subversive stitch, not to mention rubber balloons, bra wire, butterfly wings, flower petals and recycled plastics, all take precedence over the more conventional art papers. Finger prints, Letraset, rubber stamps, spilt wax, inks and dyes are some of the preferred mediums of expression. Covers for these books include a recycled ‘Metho burner’, a snake skin, stitched cloth sleeves, plastic containers and boxes of all shapes, sorts and sizes. There is a certain urgency about her books, an impatience to be born, combined with a country girl’s gift for improvisation, where an unlikely marriage of materials and techniques frequently gives birth to a fragile innocence which asserts its right to exist.
Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo in a famous essay on the artists book as a culinary delight, have a wonderful passage dealing with the book as desert. “As we enter the post-modern, post-literate, post-humanistic, post-avant-garde, post-mechanical age of electronic technologies, the book as we have known it may become archaic and anachronistic – a dinosaur, so to speak. Executives of corporate communication companies know that if their book division continues to be losers they will be disposed of or reformed. Yet, to its lovers, a book is a wonderful thing. An embodiment of spirit, it is a totemic object that requires a personal, intimate involvement to unlock its mysteries and reveal its pleasures. Is it possible that this visual, literary, intellectual memory device, this commodity of the soul, this mojo of Western civilisation is facing the scrap heap of history? Is this a bad dream or an opera? Enter the artist as tenor. It’s the last scene of the final act and he has just stepped off the top of the citadel. On his way down, he sings his concluding aria: ‘There are more producers of artists books than there are consumers. It’s true democracy and bad business.’ Stage left, one can make out the shadowy figure of the Muse, who points an enigmatic finger at the words projected on the scrim over the badly painted sunrise: ‘The book as it will be is yet to be discovered.’” 4
Dianne Fogwell in her artists books is hinting at some of these possible future forms, while at the same time leaving behind in a beautiful, articulate and audible voice a trace of phantoms and passions which have now vanished like a dream.
Dr Sasha Grishin
Canberra, July 2001
1 It has become a general convention to write artists books without the apostrophe, see Stefan Klima, Artists books: A critical survey of the literature, New York, Granary Books 1998.
2 Johanna Drucker, The century of artists’ books, New York, Granary Books 1995, p 1.
3 Robin Wallace-Crabbe, introductory essay in Artist’s books, Criterion Fine Art Gallery, Braidwood 1997.
4 Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo, “The artist as book printer: Four short courses”, in Joan Lyons (ed.) Artists’ books: A critical anthology and sourcebook, New York, Peregrine Smith Books 1987, p 164.