Sharon Gilbert entered the world of book art the way most artists do-- indirectly. Her early training was as a Formalist, as was the prevailing art-for-arts-sake mentality of the 60s art world. She was a sculptor in the Bauhaus tradition - her work was austere, formal, and meant to exist in the cultural realm of "Fine Art." It was kept well on its pedestal, aesthetically-minded, and carefully distanced from anything as impure as politics.
But on March 28, 1979 external events exploded into Sharon Gilbert's white-cubed world. When the tragic nuclear "incident" at 3-mile island occurred, more than two-thousand people were affected by the fallout, and Sharon Gilbert was spurred into action. Her artwork made a dramatic turn towards the political, which in turn triggered an equally drastic shift in media. Gilbert's first book project in 1979, 3-mile Island Reproductions, was a handmade pamphlet consisting entirely of Xeroxed images. It proved an inexpensive and timely way to get the word out. The relative ease and affordability of creating multiples helped disseminate this new art at rapid speed, making it available to a much larger public.
Widely accessible technology such as the Xerox machine played an important role in the movement to democratize art. Much like the work of early video art pioneers, Sharon Gilbert's desire to make her voice heard on social and political issues was part of the driving force of 1970's. The ideals of disseminating information and spreading knowledge, both inside and outside of the blurring boundaries of the "art world," were widespread yet simultaneously revolutionary.
Gilbert's work not only went against her previous Formalist tenents of what art is, but also against how many approach Book Art. Not as enamored with the holiness of the object, Gilberts books are decidedly not precious. There are no gilt edges, no hand-bound leather spines, nor carefully illuminated pages. Gilbert's Xeroxed surfaces and simple bindings are about speed and directness rather than exacting detail and time-consuming process. Although not fussy in the aforementioned sense, these works have an undeniable attention to detail and orderliness. Their straight-forward simplicity dates back to her earlier Bauhaus sensibility, denying the ornate and decorative tendencies of many Book Artists.
In many ways Sharon Gilbert's books are the antithesis of the traditions of this fastidious art form. They do not strive for the status of timeless classics; they are very much entrenched in their particular era. Her signature use of the photocopied image places the objects in an unmistakable time period. By creating these works with current (yet constantly outdated) technology, Gilbert is visually time-stamping the work, linking it to the moment it was created -- through both the politics of its statements and mode of its production.
Through the Xerox aesthetic, Gilbert uses her body as a tool in an almost performative sense. The motif of her photocopied hand is a constant in the work; it is an actor whose presence is guaranteed but whose role changes from act to act. At once the symbol of fragility, strength, struggle, and protest, Gilbert's hand bring a sense of humanity to each of her causes, the political and the personal. And, much like the technology they are depicted through, her hands mark time -ageing with her as the projects progress, year after year and book after book.
Over the course of the past thirty years, Gilbert has created eighteen artists books in all. As for the early work, these once freely distributed objects have become quite sought after. From their unassuming birth in a studio in Brooklyn, they can now be found in museums and libraries around the world including the Bibliotheque Nationale de France , the Museum of Modern Art , the Whitney Museum of American Art , the J Paul Getty Center Library , and the Stedelijk Museum Library in Amsterdam , to name but a few.
Current events and modern technology continue to play important roles in her work and her life. From the first Xeroxed pamphlets to the latest digitally-produced, mechanically-bound book, Sharon Gilbert is keeping pace with the times. The continued newness of Gilbert's approach relies heavily on her willingness to keep experimenting. Through these fresh observations and intimate objects, she is our guide to the present, leading us into this next century with our eyes open and our hands outstretched.
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