Exhibition looks at tension between form and content

With the exception of a decade somewhere between the 1960s and 1970s, artists’ books (usually a fusion of text and images presented in book form) never really became a popular genre in the visual arts. In a way this is a paradox, for what started out as a democratic form that hoped to make art more broadly accessible, is now more or less marginalized and, in a certain way, elitist. This is perhaps because, like most conceptual art, it lacks the immediate, visual impact of a painting or an installation. Interestingly, Kyrillos Sarris, a Cypriot-born, contemporary artist will not quit the genre. «Library, 2- 2004, or the difficulty of showing books as artworks» which is the title of his one-man show at the Nees Morfes Gallery, includes a large number of his artists’ books: Some are one of a kind, others are multiples and most of them come in a notebook size. It is a rather hermetic exhibition – an impression made stronger by the books’ enclosure in perspex boxes – that suggests more than it reveals, in the same way that books contain an entire world that awaits to be discovered by its reader. The books’ diverse contents reflect the artist’s intellectual concerns with nature and the role of art. Kyrillos Sarris is a rather distinctive presence in the art world. A medical doctor as well as practicing artist, he is an intellectual who is deeply knowledgeable about art issues. (He has closely studied the work of Marcel Duchamp.) In his artists’ books, Sarris uses texts about art or excerpts from literature that give an idea of the interplay between form and content. There is, for example, a series based on James Joyce’s «Finnegans Wake» and another that draws on Clement Greenberg’s views on modernism. In another series, Sarris uses the images of beautiful flowers taken from a book on botany and juxtaposes them with their definitions. On reading them, one finds out that despite their surface beauty, all of those flowers are poisonous. Sarris brings out the tension between text and image, between the visual and the mental. Besides the relationship between form and content, his work also addresses the tension between looking and reading, use and display, the private and the public. Seeking to expand the limits of art, Sarris looks for ways in which an artwork is not only looked at but also handled, not just as an object of public display but also as an item that invites use, and lets the user exercise his own personal choice. The ideal situation for Sarris would have been for visitors to be able to leaf through the books at will. Fearing the wear and tear that this would entail, he has tried to replace this process by coming up with diverse manners of display: Besides exhibiting the books inside the perspex cases, he also unfolds – in a scroll-like fashion – the contents of one of his books across a wall and, in another part of the gallery, he has placed a video installation with two monitors. One of the monitors shows the hands of the artist leafing through the book and touching the paintings (experiencing paintings in a tactile way is the idea here) and the other shows the artist standing against a bookcase with his back to the viewers and reciting excerpts from «The New Art of Making Books» by Ulisses Carrion. Again, Sarris uses a text about art to explore issues of art. Whether through reading, touching, reciting or looking, he also draws attention to the different ways of experiencing art. In Sarris’s work, the process by which we perceive art is more important than the artwork itself. The definition and the role of art today are also of significance. Sarris believes that art is no longer an integral part of our lives, not «a social necessity.» He doubts the public impact of art and tends to believe that «culture is a personal matter for each one of us.» Just as books mean nothing unless one takes the time to read them, art is not something to be passively looked at but to be decoded and discovered through personal initiative. At the Nees Morfes Gallery (9 Valaoritou Street, 210.361.6165), to Saturday.

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