Bookmarks: Su Blackwell

artist book: a work of art realized in the form of a book.

The definition may sound simple, but the world of artist books can be a bewildering place. From the familiar pairing of images and text, to sculptures created out of paper and complicated bindings that create a performance each time the book is opened, nearly anything can be called an artist book if there is intention and consideration. This series showcases artists from different realms of the art world exploring the structure and meaning of the book.

The House in the Oak Tree, 2015, book-cut sculpture

When looking at art, whether the medium is photography, painting or sculpture, our initial reactions are always based on visual aesthetics. The most powerful works jump out at us—giving us visceral feedback. However, the best works are not only visually captivating, but thoughtful as well. They ask us to look deeper, beyond their materials, and to delve into the works itself. It is this premise that divides fine art from the commercial work and craft.

Book art often toes the fine line between craft and art, particularly with regards to book-cut sculptures, where the subjects are frequently haphazard. The labor-intensive work of Su Blackwell move towards defying that convention. Blackwell’s book-cut sculptures draw inspiration from fairy tales, folklore and classic children’s novels. A formally trained textile artist, who turned to paper as a medium while on a trip to South East Asia, Blackwell carefully carves 3-dimensional scenes that emerge both literally and contextually, from the second-hand books that she picks up.   

Pandora Opens the Box, 2009, book-cut sculpture

Rather than indiscriminately working from any book, Blackwell carefully selects the titles from which she works. She generates her vision from the author’s text and, at times, from preexisting illustrations within the book. After reading the book, she chooses a passage that resonates with her:

"I tend to lean towards young-girl characters, placing them in haunting, fragile settings, expressing the vulnerability of childhood, while also conveying a sense of childhood anxiety and wonder. There is a quiet melancholy in the work, depicted in the material used, and choice of subtle colour."

Then using a simple craft knife and glue, Blackwell extracts the scene of her choice directly from the book itself. Like the work of Joseph Cornell, the books are often encased as dioramas, and she sometimes includes interior lighting to stage the scene.

Treasure Island, 2013, book-cut sculpture

The violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch once stated that, “[t]he most potent muse of all is our own inner child.” Blackwell’s works explore this frequently untapped source of inspiration. By culling from texts and scenes that she feels akin to, she not only brings each author’s vision to life, but her choice of subject recalls the imaginative state of childhood. Her careful selection process also indicates that she too, personally relates to the specific narratives depicted, and that these works are also a reflection of her.

Nature in Britain, 2012, book-cut sculpture

Su Blackwell is represented by Long and Ryle Gallery in London. She graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2003 with a specialization in textiles. In addition to her book-cut sculptures, Blackwell continues to work in textiles to this day.

Elizabeth K. Harris is the Director at Louis K. Meisel Gallery. She holds an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University and has co-authored two books on art. She likes looking at books more than reading them.