Tapping into the import and pervasiveness of books, both in modern society and on the local events calendar this spring, Blue Star Contemporary will offer up a bevy of book-related exhibitions and events beginning on Friday and running through May 3. 

Five new exhibitions will anchor the book bonanza: Publishing Against the Grain, a traveling group exhibition from Independent Curators International, More Findings by San Marcos artist Rand Renfrow, Giveth and Taketh by Houston artist Sarah Welch, Secret Passage by Nacodoches artist Candace Hicks, and Novel Ideas, a group exhibition.

On March 6 and 7, the contemporary art space also will host an art book fair called Novel Ideas that will feature nearly 30 exhibitors, including printmakers, small presses, commercial publishers, and university programs such as the Texas State University photography program and the Southwest School of Art bookmaking program. 

The keynote speaker for the fair will be Julie Ault, a writer, artist, curator, and founding member of the influential New York-based art collective Group Material.

Blue Star’s bookish barrage will coincide with and become a part of a spring literary feast that will include the city’s first time hosting the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, in March, and the San Antonio Book Festival, in April.

The leaders of Blue Star had considered hosting an art book fair for several years, and this spring presented itself as the ideal time to finally execute the idea, said Jacqueline McGilvray, Blue Star’s curator and exhibitions manager. 

As she began working on the fair, it became clear that this particularly literary spring might demand something bigger. As such, McGilvray and her team put together the exhibitions, calling on Texas artists whose work is inspired by or somehow based in books.

For McGilvray, this spring seemed like the “perfect time to have a moment where the city is collectively thinking about the importance of books.”

“I hope people that are invested in reading and books will come to the fair, come see the exhibitions, and consider the way artists think about books in their practices,” she said, “but I also want to be able to connect to communities, for people with these shared interests to be able to come together and look at this subject that’s near and dear to them in new ways.”

McGilvray said that she is pleased with the diversity of work across the five exhibitions, noting that she “wanted the work to diverge from the typical idea of the book” and to portray the ways in which artists redefine the experience of books and our relationship to them.

Welch’s work in Giveth and Taketh grows out of the world of the comics she makes and into the gallery space, McGilvray said. Set in the Gulf Coast region, in a “post-natural disaster landscape” where “people have to figure out how to survive and reconsider their day-to-day existence,” Welch’s comics become reading rooms, illustrations, mural pieces, and sculptures in this exhibition.

Renfrow’s contributions in More Findings combine sculpture and printmaking in his endeavor to investigate how abstract shapes can come to represent emotion and create a language or index of shapes that correspond with feelings, McGilvray said.

“We as readers,” McGilvray said, “can look at something symbolic, or a system or sequence or pattern, and quickly decipher that and start to assign our own meanings.” Renfrow’s work hones in on this perceptual and conceptual aspect of reading and books.

Hicks, for her part, said that her work in Secret Passage looks to “explore how books multiply space.” Her exhibition features 24 soft-sculpture books, created with embroidery, whose content focuses on coincidences that happen in daily life and in reading.

Candace Hicks, Common Threads Volume 100, 2019, embroidery on canvas Credit: Courtesy / Artist

“In some sense, every book spawns an alternate universe,” Hicks said, noting that Blue Star allowed her to use some of the space beyond the actual gallery that is normally reserved for staff use. 

“This gave me an opportunity to play with the space of the interior of the book in a way that I have never had the chance to do before,” she said.

Hicks’ work is particularly centered on common tropes in literature, which influence both the content and form of the work, McGilvray said. The name, Secret Passage, carries a double meaning, as it can be read as a reference to a secret passageway, a trope common to mystery novels, or as a reference to a passage in a book.

The group exhibition Novel Ideas “looks broadly at the importance of books to artistic practice both in inspiration and the format the work takes,” McGilvray said.

With the wide scope of the exhibitions, McGilvray said Blue Star Contemporary hopes to capture the imaginations of avid readers and art lovers of all ages and backgrounds, including some of the writers, publishers, and others who will be in town for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and the San Antonio Book Festival.

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.

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