The book, the poet, the artist and the breakthrough

As a container of information in text form, the book is designed in a linear fashion to move the reader along line by line. Many artists seek to break this convention and direct the reader/viewer into a more exploratory realm, as is true of the work of Jan Davis. This article leads the reader (in a somewhat linear sense) through Davis seven-volume artist book simply titled SOLOMON  a journey developed out of the artists concern with the operation of space in visual imagery and her interest in writing.

Jan Davis Solomon 1995, seven volumes each 13.7 x 13.7 x 1.2 cm, in slipcase 14.7 x 14 x 9.5 cm, edition of 10. Photos Carl Warner.
Jan Davis Solomon 1995, seven volumes each 13.7 x 13.7 x 1.2 cm, in slipcase 14.7 x 14 x 9.5 cm, edition of 10.

As a container of information in text form, the book is designed in a linear fashion to move the reader along line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page in an orderly fashion. It is a design that has served us well, and has governed our reading since the Middle Ages, when movable type first gave us linear reading. Then along came poets and artists using text as art in the book form to break this convention.
Stéphane Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés Jamais N'abolira Le Hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance) provided the breakthrough. Mallarmé had long regarded the traditional book design as a failure and wanted to do away with the back and forth motion of the eyes as they followed the text across the page only to have to track back and recommence the process. His solution was the typographic poem along with the concept of visual text.

In 1995 the visual artist, Jan Davis, produced a seven-volume artist book simply titled SOLOMON. It developed out of Davis' concern with the operation of space in visual imagery and her interest in writing, 'which exhibits a distinctly visual component', and draws on the heritage of the experiments started by Mallarmé. 'My decision to use books has been influenced by the relationship that existed initially between the visual poet and the typographer, and later between the poet and the typewriter.' Both relationships could be regarded as flawed; the poet was reliant on the typographer's interpretation and restricted by the typewriter's limited typefaces. For the artist/printmaker, Davis, no such limitation existed. She replaced the typewriter with a Mac and became her own typographer.

The visual images in SOLOMON were derived from photographs taken during a residency in the Melanesian islands in 1994, 'I saw the islands from the air – stretched like a concrete poem across a watery expanse... space in the Solomons had significance in a similar way to space in the ruptured syntax of the concrete poets.' In the post-colonial culture of the Solomons Davis derived her text from various sources including: the pidgin language, a Spanish explorer, an early adventurer, missionaries, ethno-anthropologists, poetry and even from a transcribed sermon.

As with most books the title is printed across the spine, but here a single letter in capitals is isolated on the spine of each of the seven volumes (S – O – L – O – M – O – N). Isolated, each letter carries more power than the whole. This is the first signpost that our reading engagement with SOLOMON will be active.
The second signpost, a single word subtitle in lowercase – 'name', 'see', 'write', 'corpus', 'tell', 'eat', 'name' – is placed just beyond the first fold of each volume and belies its importance.

In 'S' the subtitle ('name') establishes 'naming' space – 'space' as in creating an expanse for language to operate and 'space' as in naming of a space in order to possess it. On the second and third pages the letters – s c a tt er ed – float across a brilliant blue 'watery expanse'. Word and image become the page, become the space. Together they speak not only of the physical scattering of the islands but of a scattered culture, scattered languages.

The three 'O' books are interchangeable yet linked. 'O' ('corpus') is about head hunting, singing, indigenous spirituality and the absorption of Christianity. In the middle of a page a large 'O' outlined in red and across it in black is 'head'. On the opposite page the word Eats and underneath with the Es aligned spEaks.

Across the next two pages the words (speak babble mutter giggle scream banquet, amongst others) set up a haphazard almost dance-like movement. Toward the back of the book on another two-page spread the absorption of Christianity is evident in a similar pattern of words such as (celebrates prayers exalts obeys). Here the pattern's progression is orderly and reminds us of staircases or processions. It is not only word selection that underlines cultural differences but also word placement.

'O' ('eat') draws on the coconut. It underlines the importance of the coconut and the palm tree in a pre-colonial, pre-diesel society. At the edge of the sea, stacked on their sides, rusted oil drums contrast with the blue of the water and sky. In bright yellow the letters C O C O appear on four of the lids and symbolise both 'domination' and 'loss'; dominate/lost (culture), dominate/lost (language). Toward the middle of the book large white Os are layered over a sepia image of coconut palms in a deceptively linear pattern. Image and word are one.

Davis employed the manipulative quality offered by digital technology to realise SOLOMON in which both images and languages burst with the colour of these Melanesian islands. Michael Schlitz's 2005 artist book the nature of things, on the other hand, is reticent both in colour and in language, the only colour being provided by the lightly screen-printed text accompanying each of the ten black and white images.
His tool of choice was the wood engraver's tool used to gouge images into the small blocks of wood. The blocks were then inked up and printed on off-white Japanese Kozo paper folded at the fore-edge with the text printed on the folded back page facing the next image. The blind embossed title the nature of things almost disappears into the black cover of the Japanese style binding.

In the beginning almost everything about this book is enigmatic. We only discover the title on the cover after a couple of goes. Inside, the text is delicate, almost ephemeral, and we must either bend page or book this way and that to catch each word. It is the quirky black images we grasp on to first. Small (c. 7.5 x 7 cm), they are placed in the middle but slightly to the right, and sit proud on an expanse of paper. They are tactile and they lead us in.

Accompanying text throughout is printed lower case facing images, titles in light yellow, body in white. Schlitz has placed the text on the fold-back page so that it sits atop the black show-through of the preceding image. He has put to advantage the transparency of the Kozo paper to 'highlight' the delicate words, so that they appear to float out of a dark background. Each of the ten images and text are organised like chapters.

In the first image a human figure dominates the foreground and stands in an uneasy relationship with its surroundings. With oversize head, large booted feet and many gesticulating arms, the figure, facing left, is looking at something outside, something we cannot see. Is it reaching for or waving at this 'something'? Immediately behind our figure is what appears to be a wasteland, or perhaps a foreshore at low tide, while way in the background is a range of mountains or hills. This image takes its title from the book:

the nature of things

every thing existing
an exchange
some things take more
some things give more

A few pages on an image of a face lies in what could be a pool of water, staring up at a black sky. This face has no body only many arms and hands, which emanate from behind the face. They are reaching down, moving, trawling through the water. What are they looking for?


jellyfish are a delicacy
in some parts of the world

In another image, titled forester, the large booted figure again makes an appearance and again dominates. This time it has no arms but tree branches sprout from its head, and head and body have turned into a tree trunk. It walks confidently through a landscape with mountains in the background. Is this the same figure and the same landscape as our first image?


the forester is
of different qualities
and relationships
to the stuff he works

We are starting to get a feel for this and turn the page. Ladderhead, the next image, depicts a three-rung ladder, its right stile a little decrepit, grounded on a bed of hair.


ladders are for going up
sometimes its hard
to see where to go
when the subject is so close

Two figures, one larger, face one another. The larger with black visage has an arm under the chin and around the neck of the smaller. On the surface it would seem it is controlling the smaller white-faced figure, but both show equal strength.


take a deep breath
our master is air
there are too many masters
to mention

Tone, both of image and text, has been dark, but relief comes with the second last chapter antipodeans atlas. Even though the image is black, it is the movement of the figure that lightens our feelings. What looks like a boy standing on his hands or doing a cartwheel, is our rescuer holding up our world upside down.

antipodeans atlas

gravity is a heavy condition
ideas can be heavy
the world is heavy
but can be lifted
quite easily

On the surface the nature of things deals with our relationship with the environment. In reality, however, it deals with relationships both personal and universal, and this is reflected in the relationship of the almost 'loud' black and white images vis-à-vis a subtle almost 'invisible' text. A text set out in a linear fashion but which is unreadable using this skill. If the images invite us in, it is the words that make us welcome.
Mallarmé believed all earthly experiences would end up in a book. This book 'The Book' was to be, for precious moments, a spiritual experience for the reader. Un Coup de Dés was his attempt as poet to make 'The Book' a reality. The artists, Jan Davis and Michael Schlitz, picked up the challenge.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.