At its best, stepping into an art exhibition conjures up the same feelings of anticipation and expectation that going to a concert or a movie does. You can shut out the workaday world and become fully immersed in creativity and new stimuli; eyes on full alert, taking in the works as a whole while individual details and tiny flourishes surprise and delight.
This is all true of Common Ground, and then some. But visiting Rollins Museum of Art to view the selection of works from the college's book art collection put us in the mindset of visiting a favorite bookshop where a new favorite tome — or five — unexpectedly leaps from the shelves into our eager hands.
Displayed in a modest gallery space within Rollins Museum of Art — and in two display cases in the Olin Library on campus — Common Ground has a warm and inviting bookstore aesthetic while at the same time possessing all the riotous visual excitement of, say, Orlando Zine Fest. (Ed. note: Happening Dec. 18 at the Nook on Robinson!)
The shapes and sizes of the limited-edition books and pieces are all over the place, flowing from one to the other in accordion shapes, strung together by thread, splayed out like a deck of cards, bound together in found objects — the overt and the nuanced are everywhere and unending.
"Book arts is a genre of contemporary art that encompasses books and book-like objects produced by artists who are interested in self-publishing their work as well as creating unique fine art objects," explains Rollins professor Rachel Simmons, co-curator of the exhibit. "Artists' books run the gamut from sculptures to zines, animations, installations and even videos. Some look like books and others are more conceptual — challenging and expanding how we define a book."
Ben Blount's Racial Activity Coloring Book has a deceptive aesthetic in line with the coloring books you had as a kid but with hard-hitting messages laced with satire questioning social-justice themes — and even references to comedy geniuses Dick Gregory and Paul Mooney. (A personal highlight.)
Another notable piece was Maryanne Riker's booklet series on NASA's pioneering — and overlooked — women: DIY in execution, fiery in narrative, and relevant to today's workplace struggles over diversity and inclusivity.
202-454-111 — named for the White House phone number — is an essay by Martha Rosler with visuals by Jason Lazarus. It's presented as photograms featuring the title on every page along with Riker's insightful look at our harrowing time under the 45th president. A collaborative project from the Virginia Center is presented as a deck of cards. Titled A Pack of Lies, the cards count off white privilege advantages, along with symbols and iconography of hate groups and statements about spreading cultural fallacies.
Diorama as pop-up book on life and love within a same-sex family makes up Benjamin D. Rinehart's Boy & Bubs: Seasons of Change. Feelings of marginalization are expressed through Keiko Ichi's impressive piece about the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
Taken as a whole, Common Ground is a heady mix of sharp aesthetics and sharper activism.
Simmons, a faculty member in the Art Department at Rollins, and Dr. Deborah Prosser, Director at Olin Library, have worked together for the last few years to develop a diverse collection of book arts for Rollins and are the curatorial minds behind the selection of work, alongside Rollins Museum of Art Director Ena Heller.
When speaking with Simmons and Prosser about Common Ground, we asked what they hoped foremost to accomplish with the show, to which both immediately replied: "To start a conversation."
"We are fortunate at Rollins to have museum and library collections grounded in teaching our students and focused on serving as catalysts for critical conversations in support of our global citizenship mission," Prosser adds. "Through our collaboration between the museum and library we also are able to bring these artworks to a wider audience."
The works featured in this exhibit are grouped in different sections dedicated to subjects like climate concerns, gender, economics, religion and social justice. And the artists collected in Common Ground are all at different stages of their artistic careers.
"The exhibition and collection are primarily professional artists' books, with a few examples of outstanding student work and one collaboration between visiting artist Ben Blount and Rollins students," explains Simmons of the roster of artists included in Common Ground. "The collection was started in 2018 as a teaching tool for students at Rollins College."
"We do add student work to the collection and purchase work from students when possible," adds Prosser.
Rollins Museum's mission as a teaching museum makes this kind of direct involvement from students all the more vital. It localizes and humanizes the bigger issues quite literally on display.
Viewing Common Ground can be an intimate experience, like reading a diary or pondering a scrapbook. Scanning the pages gives you a seemingly more personal look into the ideas and belief of the artists while also challenging traditional notions of what goes up on a gallery's walls.
And maybe, just maybe, it'll inspire you to try your own hand at this democratized medium.
"Our ultimate goal with the exhibition is to create an awareness of book arts as a unique genre of fine art, one which crosses disciplinary boundaries and touches on relevant contemporary issues," Simmons says.
Common Ground is a shining example of artists using their medium as a mirror on society to inspire passionate conversation and thoughtful reflection in unexpected ways. Come read all about it.