- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2004

A collective wail for global and personal tragedies appears to rise from the single, dimly lit gallery housing “Book as Art XV.” The exhibit, on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, features the work of a disparate group of 27 female artists from as far afield as Turkey, Spain and Colombia. “This is the first time since I began this annual exhibit 15 years ago that I didn’t choose a specific theme,” says Krystyna Wasserman, curator of book arts at the museum. “So many artists came to me with their own, very interesting ideas that I decided to accept the most powerful and individual works on a variety of ideas.”

Miss Wasserman has resourcefully made a virtue of the compressed exhibit space available for the show, emphasizing the variety of the books displayed. Several of the works will be rotated on July 31. Ten books will be replaced for a second installation on Aug. 9. In the meantime, pages in the books currently exhibited will be turned so that visitors can experience different views of them.

Many of the artists in this show have been deeply affected by the terrorist violence — both here and in their own countries — of recent years. In the haunting “World After September 11,” for example, Italian artist Mirella Bentivoglio expresses her sense of global vulnerability by repeating the word “fragile” on each page of her book, which she encloses with a grid of wire mesh, a metaphor for protection in a dangerous world.

Miss Bentivoglio got the idea for her book while attending a first anniversary commemoration of September 11 in the Italian town of Bagnaia. To symbolically safeguard the town’s medieval tower from destruction, artist Gisella Meo enclosed it with red cord net while the townspeople waved American flags.

September 11 also provides the subject of New Yorker Susan Rotolo’s “Uncommon Ground.” Living close to what was once the World Trade Center, she voiced her feelings by attaching e-mail messages from concerned friends to bookends simulating the towers. “The work was created,” writes the artist in the exhibit catalog, “to look as the city looked and felt at the time: damaged, dusty, burned, and badly wounded.”

In the dramatic “Kill Me For My Belief!”, Iranian-born artist Sohayla Vafai dramatizes the totalitarian suppression of free speech rights in her native land by sinking a knife into a book of poems by the prominent Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlu on a simulated pool of blood.

Tragedy comes in personal, as well as political, forms in the show. Connie Conner-Blair, for example, laments in words and pictures that she was still single at 39 in “She Has Vanished from the Outside and Gone Within …,” originally created for her master’s thesis project at the University of Florida, Gainesville. But her story ends happily in this masterpiece of ink, oil paint sticks, collage and etching: She found her husband Alan Blair on the Internet, had her first baby at age 40, and expects another child at age 41.

Spanish-born Elena del Rivero expresses the opposite view, that women only achieve fulfillment by living alone. In the individual panels of “Letter from the Bride,” she depicts her notion of the archetypal female journey through life: girl, daughter, sister, wife, mother, lover, woman alone and woman.

Unifying works by a disparate group of artists, many little-known, in a small space presents a difficult curatorial challenge, one which has been successfully met with this beautiful and intelligent collection of artists’ books.

WHAT: “Book as Art XV”

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday through November 28

TICKETS: $5 adults; $3 seniors, students, young people under 18 and museum members.

PHONE: 202/783-5000

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