Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 2010
Emily McVarish The Square New York: Granary Books, 2009. 64 pp. Cloth $1200.00

Emily McVarish is one of a handful of artists whose primary artistic output takes the form of books, books that she writes, designs, and prints—artists’ books. The publication of The Square offers the opportunity to experience a new work by this artist, a product of her long-running and deep engagement with the book as an artistic vehicle.

The Square is typographically sophisticated and superbly well-produced, but its objective is not a celebration of craft, nor is it intended to be a luxury product for high-end consumption. It is an original, inventive, and transformative work of art that offers a nuanced performance of texts, an exploration of ideas about public space, rhythm, and the everyday, explored through McVarish’s poetic use of language and the typographic manipulation possible within a book.

The idea that a book can be a performance, a time-based experience structured by sequences of pages and page spaces that is brought into being by the reader, is not a new idea. Stephane Mallarmé’s Un Coups de Dés (1897) is exactly this: a carefully considered and written expression that only exists as the placement of words in a certain spatial order within a printed work. McVarish functions within the same realm: her previous books use an acute awareness of language coupled with typographic spacing, placement, sequence, syntax, and proximity to disrupt and complicate meaning. Many of her past books were poetic explorations of the nature of language and textuality, and they question how meaning can be created using a book as a vehicle. The Square is a rich experience with the materiality of language, a thoughtful exploration of how the rhythms of daily life can be marked within a visually poetic book.

The Square is a deceptively straightforward-looking volume: it is a codex-style book, quarter bound in cloth; the interior is printed on a heavy uncoated paper; and it stands about eight by ten inches. On closer scrutiny, though, it is clearly not an ordinary book. The pages are printed with a variety of typefaces in a wide range of sizes, from tiny sans serif to large wood type characters. Small images of walking figures dot the pages; a few pages have little holes drilled into them. Many pages are completely covered with a repeating pattern of monthly calendars. These design elements reveal McVarish’s agenda to make a book that is not a transparent vehicle for communication, since her graphic strategies disrupt continuous reading, but to make a book that explores various kinds of performances possible within it.

Thinking about The Square as a score rather than as a unitary text offers an interesting way to consider the work. The book is organized around several rhythmic principles. The first, and most obvious, is that the sixty-four pages, minus the first and last pages, make thirty-one openings, or page spreads. Each of the spreads is (with a few interesting disruptions) numbered from 01 to 31, suggesting the days of a month. The first section is blind-embossed with repeating tiny calendar blanks, arrangements of numbers, from 1 to 31, organized in lines of seven numbers, and producing every possible variation of that order. The arrangement of these tiny calendar blanks creates a grid structure that reveals another underlying rhythm in the book, a spatial rhythm that McVarish uses to determine the placement of various elements of the text. Small blocks of text appear at the gutter of the spreads, hover at the edges of the pages, or float in the center, but always with a rhythmic sense of position, creating a kind of visual beat that resonates throughout the work.

The Square is divided into three sections: “‘I’m just . . .’ full of holes,” “This Alternitude,” and “You Are Here.”

In the first section, “‘I’m just . . .’ full of holes,” McVarish establishes the terms of her artistic inquiry. Established and demonstrated within this section are her use of poetic, abbreviated language; her modular use of page space, which calls special attention to the significance of the page edge; and her sophisticated and nuanced use of typographic hierarchy as marker for reading and voice. McVarish’s work often uses disruption of reading as a strategy, and, as is true of many artists’ books, the reader has to learn how to read in a new way to understand the work. The most rewarding artists’ books actually teach the reader how to read them, and McVarish instigates this new experience of poetic visual reading through a gradual introduction of these visual strategies.

The first section occupies the first seventeen openings of the book, and is marked by blind-printed perpetual calendar forms: miniature iterations of every possible configuration of the days of the month expressed as days of the week in the familiar form seen in small calendars. Printed in large light-pinkish ink are numbers that start at 1 (expressed in the book as 01, but as a rhythmic gesture, sometimes one of the characters is omitted) and proceed with a new number on every opening of the book. Clearly, McVarish sees the opening of the book, the two-page spread, as the fundamental unit of the book, and her exploration of the rhythms of the book proceed from this understanding: the book has an inherent walking-pace two-page rhythm built into it.

This section features lines of text, printed in outline type and placed to start and end at the fore-edges of the pages, which seem to be quotes from people talking on cell phones. “I’m on my way there now,” “I’m sorry, I meant to call you earlier,” and, “Hey, we’re almost there,” strongly suggest one-sided cell phone conversations, the kind of things heard in public spaces. Small images of walking figures dot some of these pages, and another voice is present in the clumps of tiny type that offer a context for the walking figures and the captured conversations: “in-sets of ABSENCE on the scattering screen/scene,” and, “These LODGES enclosed by instant disregard flung open to any air,” point to one of McVarish’s main ideas about the square in this section: portable media’s disintegration of any shared public space. The public square, at least in this work, represents a shared daily experience, a place where people meet and interact. The ubiquitous nature of portable media has created a hole in this daily experience, and McVarish calls attention to this hole, this absence in our lives: “Adjacent, chance attendants, / cast away and retained / by the same imposing bareness / are trapped in shapeless time / and cancelled.” McVarish’s tiny walking figures seem alienated by the space surrounding them, and they are also surrounded by thin holes drilled into the page. These holes are then indexed with numbers printed in each hole’s position on the next opening of the book.

The second section, tilted “This Alternitude,” is loosely narrated by a new character who speaks in the first person, and is identified as “the keeper of the whole.” Alterity is the idea of exchanging your own point of view with that of the “other,” and this part seems to focus on the freezing of something, an immobilization. The square in this section of the book is no longer the public square, but something else: a place for looking at the details that make up everyday life: “Every detail, / once detached, / becomes (and stops becoming) / another feature to be grafted.” The keeper is concerned with preserving something, a street corner: “HOW can a street corner be lost you ask / in the same way as love.” This street corner is a very specific place and time, emblematic of the thing that is lost in the first part of The Square. This section is unmarked by the blind-printed calendar blanks, but the bottom edge of the pages are printed with blocks of wood-texture, probably the result of turning wood type upside down and printing the back of the letter rather than the letterform. These blocks form a running shape along the bottom that suggests a cityscape, a skyline, and these shapes become a pedestal for tiny lines of text: “The first task / of the whole’s last keeper / is to square the air / with a scene’s edge.”

The third section, titled “You Are Here,” returns to the repeated background pattern of the printed calendar forms, and has the phrase “you are here” repeated across the pages, and even wrapping across the fore-edge, spanning from one opening to the next. Near the gutter in miniature type is the text: “Listen. There is nothing to hold, / no thing to be known / by sight of an instant stopped. (nothing stops.)” The reader is directed to understand life as a process, and when the final piece of writing says, “The only measure of life is a beat,” it echoes McVarish’s idea that life is made up of rhythms, and that the repetitive nature of the activities of daily life create a complex rhythm, a polyrhythm that makes the real texture of experience nearly invisible. The fascinating result of this artists’ book is to create an intense awareness of the quotidian, to make visible and apprehensible these unremarked spaces of ordinary life.

The Square is a rich, complex, and insightful work that is not easily reduced to simple sentences, and serves as a central characteristic of McVarish’s work: she uses the form of the book to explore things that cannot be explored any other way.

Clifton Meador
Associate Professor and Director, Interdisciplinary MFA in Book and Paper, Columbia College Chicago

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