A new exhibit at the Dali Museum stretches the definition of "book"

click to enlarge SPANISH BOOKS: "Us I abús" ("Use and abuse," 1990) by Pere Noguera, with texts by Carles Hac Mor, a tin box containing two glass bottles with stoppers and an instruction manual;the exterior of "Cop de poma" (1963) by Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies, Josep Maria Mestres i Quadreny and Moisès Villèlia with texts by Joan Brossa, bearing the signatures of the artists.
SPANISH BOOKS: "Us I abús" ("Use and abuse," 1990) by Pere Noguera, with texts by Carles Hac Mor, a tin box containing two glass bottles with stoppers and an instruction manual;the exterior of "Cop de poma" (1963) by Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies, Josep Maria Mestres i Quadreny and Moisès Villèlia with texts by Joan Brossa, bearing the signatures of the artists.

When does a "book" consist of a pair of vials in a metal tin, a triptych of glass "pages" or a cardboard box filled with pamphlets, drawings and a custom-made lollipop? When artists take on the form, as they have in the 100 works featured in visualKultur.cat, an exhibition jointly hosted by the Salvador Dalí Museum and the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at USF St. Petersburg.

Devoted to books produced by artists, writers, designers and publishers of Catalonia, Spain — the native region of the museum's namesake — visualKultur.cat delights the eyes and intellect. Its survey of artists' books, from the one-of-a-kind to the mass-produced, encompassing the historical avant-garde of which Dalí was a prominent and problematic member. (While his work was certainly experimental, Dalí's Warhol-esque enthusiasm for popular renown was too bourgeois for the Surrealists, a group to which he officially belonged for only five years.) And it extends to contemporary works by artists who cull inspiration from the disparate worlds of science, information technology and cinema — as well as poetry, photography, printmaking and graphic design.

All of this adds up to an exhibition in which each featured work speaks volumes, pardon the pun. Dalí's Dix recettes d'immortalité (Ten recipes for immortality, 1973), a series of pop-up books encased in a custom-built valise (with a telephone handset for a handle, no less), provides a glimpse into the artist's creative modus operandi: mixing biblical imagery with drawings of helical strands of DNA and a paper protuberance shaped like a penis to create a symbolic puzzle. (Concrete advice regarding the pursuit of eternal life remains tantalizingly elusive.) Next to it, Antoni Tàpies' comparatively austere, painterly illustrations for a text by Ramon Llull poetically transmit the regional pride that is the basis for the entire exhibition. (Llull was a medieval Majorcan philosopher responsible for writing the first literary works in Catalan, rather than Latin; the Barcelona-based institute that bears his name is a co-organizer of the exhibition.)

Some books serve as chilling reminders of Franco's rule and its concomitant censorship; take Modest Cuixart's homage to Bertolt Brecht (1964), whose plays were banned under the dictator — a project that is equal parts tribute and rebellion. (As well, the Tàpies-Llull book has as its subtext the oppression of Catalan identity under Franco.) Contemporary examples are equally spirited, but in more ambiguous and playful ways. Look to 6" (2005), a flip book that depicts the act of picking up and hurling a stone as a series of black-and-white video frames, co-created by artists Alex Gifreu and Mabel Palacín, for whom the Dalí is planning a small solo exhibition. Or Dídac Ballester's Carta de un exiliado (Letter from an exile, 2006), a diminutive volume of fragmented observations on urbanism and displacement printed on phone book pages.

Catalan artist Martí Guixé turns the traditional cookbook on its head by offering tapas recipes — like one for olives arranged on toothpicks to mimic a molecular structure, while Eugènia Balcells collects disposable plastic objects (two gloves, three utensils, nine ballons) to create De l'u (1) al deu (10) (1976-1991), a colorful, floppy multiple. While beautifully textured paper and innovative typography play prominent roles throughout the exhibition, visitors will encounter a plethora of pieces like Balcells', which stretches the very notion of a book almost beyond recognition.

A caveat to enjoying visualKultur.cat: Given the close relationship between language and visual art in the featured artists' books, those with any knowledge of Spanish, French or Catalan (a language similar to both Spanish and French spoken mainly in Catalonia) will find it easier to appreciate the exhibition in depth, as explanatory texts are few. One option is to visit the museum during its monthly coffee with a curator on Wed., Apr. 1, 10:30-11:30 a.m., when Dalí curator William Jeffett will lead a tour of the exhibit.

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