Mike Stilkey’s book art – a literary canvas
An artist uses discarded books to make his distinctive artworks
There are some immediately recognisable visual images in this world and some very familiar artistic styles, and then occasionally, one meets new ones that are just immediately eye-catching and astonishing. Book art can be such a dramatic form. If the term book art does not immediately ring a bell, it is perhaps because the genre is relatively new and mostly unknown in this part of the world but it is an innovative, synaesthetic endeavour that is captivating and striking. One name and one only comes to mind as practitioner in the allied fields of book sculpture, installations, and book pictures – that of Mike Stilkey. Mike is a 39-year-old from California whose ascent in the art world has been recent and swift and he has already exhibited in several American states as well as in Hong Kong, Manila, Beijing, Bern, Turin, Bristol, New York, and Bordeaux.
But what is his book art? The simplest explanation is that Stilkey gathers discarded books (ones that cannot be recycled as paper because of the glue used in their binding), assembles them in sculptural arrangements and paints images on the structure. The books are anchored together by various means so that they form a solid literary canvas for his paint, lacquer, ink or pencils. He has partnered with libraries and, as they rebalance their stocks, many of the books are actually donated to him by those libraries which are happy to know that the books are going to be reincarnated as a piece of art. Some of his pieces are very large - one was made up of thousands of books, was 24ft high and 14ft wide, was assembled in California and found a permanent home in the Philippines in a most appropriately named bookshop, Fully Booked. In that exhibit, the intentional interweaving of title (Discarded Romance), substrata (about 3,000 books, the majority of them old romantic novels) and portrait (pensive woman), is typical of the artist’s sophisticated approach to blending life and art. Another very significant installation entitled When the Animals Rebel, again involving thousands of books, was bought by the library at Rice University in Texas, and so old books with new value were reintroduced into a centre of learning.
On occasion, book titles may be visible in Stilkey’s compositions and thereby layers of context are added to the painting, reconnecting theme and material, the book story and the painter’s idea. Women, cats and musical instruments are frequent subjects for his multi-media treatments; they are brought to book and they tell many stories. Visually, the images operate on several levels, sometimes drawing the eye in to discern book titles that may or may not elucidate the theme, sometimes challenging the viewer by quirky combinations of startling anthropomorphic montage and realistic counter gaze. Conceptually, the ideas are layered, allusive. These art works are both sculpture and painting, with notes and narratives aplenty. The notion of discarded books constituting visual art objects may be a concept that has only emerged in the past decade but the Galerie Europ’Art in Aigues-Mortes had no doubt about the intrinsic, stimulating value of such an idea when it invited artists from four different countries to showcase their interpretations in a 2009 exhibition that announced “Le livre est une oeuvre d’art”. Stilkey’s work for that show was A Happy Medium, a title that reflects but probably understates the capacity of the genre as he interprets it.
The Washington Post turned to Mike Stilkey in 2013 when they wished to mark the fiftieth anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination. The resulting front-page image depicts JFK painted over books, and with his visage book-ended by appropriate texts, including JFK in the Senate (by John Shaw), Dallas 1963 (Bill Minutaglio & Steve Davis), Jim Lehrer’s novel Top Down and End of Days (by James Swanson). Stilkey’s portrait manages to incorporate the fresh young face of the president into the multiple and related narratives, joining it to speculative fiction while simultaneously counterposing the findings of the Warren commission and Peter Savodnik’s interpretation of Lee Harvey Oswald’s motivations. It is a thoughtful and arresting image that sends the tentacles of thought and possibility in numerous directions.
Close inspection of Stilkey’s A Dance at the Circus generates a similar multiplicity of speculation and cogitation. Some of the many book titles in evidence include ‘Son’: A Psychopath and his Victims, Without Remorse, Plan of Attack, Night Prey, The Die Song, Swindle, The Ever After and Deadly Masquerade; they are mixed together with Small Town Girl, Charmed Life, Police Work, and the rather ominous glimpse of a PD James novel where all that can be seen of the title is A Certain – the final word ‘Justice’ has vanished behind the drainpipe trouser leg of the piano accordion player. Adjusting focus to review the image as a whole, the literary outline frames the peculiar musician who dominates the picture, the dancers are under his heel and confined to a tiny bookshelf, and the circus tent is miniscule. The visual imagery is colourful and attractive. It becomes a refreshing challenge to discern and to balance possibility and probability, knowing that any verdict is arbitrary, and akin to leaving the reader free to write the final chapter. Book art is surely multidimensional.
Stilkey’s works tend to have wonderful titles: Slightly all the time is the label attached to a complex and multifaceted psychological image of togetherness and separation; The Piano has been drinking is an equally intriguing depiction of ongoing cross-fertilisation between book and music and it graces the cover of France and Ireland: Notes and Narratives, a new work edited by myself and Una Hunt.
Just who is this pioneer? For a start, he is a self-taught artist, a free creative spirit who skateboarded every day in his youth and had dreamt of being a professional skateboarder. That sport remains a favourite pastime. He revels in the beauty of nature, most especially in the wild and wonderful Big Sur area of California with its rugged scenery and rich abundance of unusual flora and fauna. His tastes in music are wide and varied and while he lists jazz, black metal, sad bastard, psychedelic and old hip hop, he resists limitation of genre and adds ‘more than that’. ‘More’ would seem to be highly appropriate in relation to the pervasive passion underpinning Skilkey’s openness and receptivity since, in addition to loving fiction, he is utterly captivated by ‘how to’ books. He qualifies that admission further by saying ‘the topic of the book doesn’t make a difference to me’. The innovation of book art may well be succeeded by an equally original venture because he has ‘a burning desire to create, whether it’s in the fields of music or painting’. He hasn’t ruled out other ambitions such as ‘recording an album, writing a book, directing a western film, and building a house’. It does not come as a surprise that Stilkey’s advice to the world is ‘Quit your job, do what you love!’ Clearly, he is enthused and invigorated by what he does and the excitement is infectious. Can we hope for an exhibition on this side of the Atlantic? While we wait, some of his many works are to be seen on the website mikestilkey.com. Mary Pierse edited, with Una Hunt, France and Ireland: Notes and Narratives (Peter Lang), which features a Mike Stilkey work on its cover