A to Z

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

With an embossed cover, uncoated paper stocks, and an immediate sense of the three dimensional nature of paper collage, Gavin Hurley’s A to Z (self-published, NZ$30) is both a delightfully tactile and visual experience. Proof, if any were needed, that the book is very much alive, and not in any danger of dying an electronic death.

Hurley is by now well-known as a painter, with regular exhibitions in Auckland, Wellington and increasingly in Sydney. His collages have often taken a back seat to the paintings, and it is refreshing to see them taking centre stage with this book. The cover is a recreation of a ruled school exercise book, the 1B5 Classic. Hurley perhaps alludes to the ways in which he uses the collages are working drawings or sketches for larger paintings. This is not simply a collection of scrapbooking cameos or school boy doodling. The collages are scanned, but retain the tell-tale textures, the beguiling cutting marks, and the sometimes torn edges of the original works on paper.

Hurley uses found paper as his raw material so the images often bear the traces of the patina of age mottling, foxing and other discolouration. The shadows, the gaps, the inflection of the cutting blade are all visible in these reproductions. His hand-cut paper aesthetic singles the A4 book out as a studied treatise on craft or the naivety of folk art.

The book is structured alphabetically, almost like an embroidery sampler. It starts with A Boy Who Feels He Has Been Treated Unfairly II 2006 and ends with a cluster of three images of apes all 2008, collectively titled Zoo: Caricature of Darwin, Disappointed, Prude & Long Nose. The A to Z structure cues into that childlike-quality that Hurley cultivates, but it also hints at a more ambitious and encyclopedic project. A directory like this shifts Hurley’s practice into new territory. It is purposeful at 60 pages plus cover, all in colour, and gives the distinct impression that it is the iceberg-tip of a large body of work.

The book is bulging with portraits and cameos with works ranging from 2006-2008. It pays homage to artists Christian Boltanski and Rita Angus, but also pioneers of paper, Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Turnball. Subjects are carefully introduced by the titles for each work on the facing page, sometimes obliquely and sometimes descriptively. But each work is also named and framed by Hurley’s alphabetical archive. For instance, Sydney Parkinson, 2008 appears as the alphabet entry for I, with the phrase, “In Loving Memory.” This framing often creates allusions, connections between works, and builds a context for his collage activity as artistic medium in its own right.

The essay, “Framing the Guilty” by Stuart Shepherd is crisp and short, just one page. It covers quite wide territory, both introducing Hurley’s themes and creating an art historical context for it, but it can’t compete with the images, Hurley it seems has essentially curated his own exhibition, in book form, with admirable results and a real clarity of purpose and vision. With a poetic quality that is backed-up by his 2007 collaboration with poet Brent Coutts in Crossing Mali, the images take on sub-plots all of their own.

A to Z sometimes feels like an artist’s book, especially because it is self published, but is has other qualities too, of being a scrapbook, a directory, an inventory, a catalogue of works, a picture book. The sense of the artist operating as editor makes it more than an artist’s book. It bears comparison to the other archival, self-published title published this year, A Field Guide to Camera Species by Darren Glass, two titles that set themselves apart by scale and ambition in their subject areas. These two titles also perhaps indicate a distinctive pattern emerging, of artists participating, indeed driving the context and reception of their work, as curators, designers and now, composers or editors. That impulse is very exciting and deserves to be widely seen and discussed.