Doug Beube on Reading Art

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday July 8, 2015

Q: How important is the original text or content of a book to your artistic process?

A: My process of locating a book to alter is dependent upon several criteria. The content of the original author’s text, its title and concept are the primary starting point. Repurposing a book is an unorthodox collaboration and it is pretty unusual if either author or publishers are aware of my practice, especially considering most of them don’t care what happens to the book once it’s sold. 

I’ve never had either publisher or author find reason for legal action against my gouging, burning, tearing or perpetuating various acts against their texts. Typically there are thousands of copies of a publication and I’m not working with a precious object. In fact, there was a case in which a writer expressed their appreciation for my appropriation of his novel and it’s transformation into a cylindrical container of information, synonymous with the meaning of his book. 

Just as the content of the book is critical so are its physical characteristics. I look at the ink on the page, the acid free quality of the paper, the color of the hardcovers and dimensions.

Q: What qualities in a book appeal to your process of transforming it from a solid, bound volume into a more randomized sculptural form? 

A: Given the implication in this question that the book is first experienced as an object; it has basic mechanical attributes and physical characteristics, size, typically rectangular but varying in weight, texture, spine, covers, etc….  Readers are not always interested in these banal characteristics but for convenience, direct their attention solely to the content of the ubiquitous object. The text block appears to be a bleached piece of wood sandwiched between colorful boards that is separated thin layer by thin layer. 

My work explores the book itself, a seemingly antiquated technology that is still purposeful in a digital age. The codex, which translates as “block of wood” in Latin, is undeviating in its essential form; its fixed nature opposes the manifold functions of a computer to perform across many planes simultaneously. My sculptural forms are not randomized but utilize the implied content of the original book.

Doug Beube, Rebreeding Codex, 2012

By transforming the “block of wood” into various shapes I push the physical object into forms that reflect both the content of the book, synthesizing new forms that seem improbable yet derived from the same rectangle. It contains both my adoration for the book, it’s limitation to add to its original finite appearance and the perennial fact that, a book is always a book. I can twist and contort it but not an e-reader, unless I see the latter form as just a broken electronic.


Doug Beube, self-portrait, in his Brooklyn studio, with altered phone book from his Disasters: Twisters series.

Q: As children, we are taught to respect books as important providers of information and inspiration. How did you come to the idea of destroying the original intention of books as raw material for art? 

A: There are two separate answers to your question. The first is, parents and teachers teach us, “books are sacred and don’t read them with dirty hands”. Denoting the information within the book’s covers shouldn’t be challenged and every book deserves to be democratically handled with respect. We know that some books go out of favor and there’s an expiration date on the information that becomes irrelevant, even obsolete.

What happens to these inapplicable containers of knowledge? They end up at the Strand Bookstore on the two dollar cart, lie dormant in garage bookshelves gathering mold, and neighbors leave anonymous notes pleading with the passerby, “Free,” “Please take me,” or even worse, retire an abandoned box of books without sentiment. Books are cheap and readily used as an artist’s raw material. More importantly they’re objects that can be repurposed, unlike most e-readers or smartphones. Books can have a second life; they can be passed onto another reader, the corner pages can be ‘dog eared,’ the red underlining of text can either be rebuked or applauded and they can be made into art. 

To answer the second part of your question, during graduate school I studied traditional techniques in leather bookbinding and box making. I was fascinated with the different aspects of building separate components using paper, board, thread and glue to make an autonomous object. We also learned to “de-bind” or take books apart by studying them in reverse. I learned to bind them and fill their blank pages with drawings and words but it wasn’t enough. I was interested in the book as a technological object, how I could transform its shape, not only its contents but also its physical characteristics.

One of the first books I altered was in 1986 volume entitled, Handbound. On a hardcover book I outlined my left hand then cut the shape on the cover using a band saw. I don’t think of these interventions as pejorative alterations or “destroying the original intention of books.” I provide a visual metaphor (or a critique) to the author’s writing depending upon its content. The original intention is in the words and ideas printed on the page. The convenience of the physical presence of a book, as a container of knowledge, is a technology that is permeable and changes with time. As Ulises Carrion wrote in The New Art of Making Books, (1980) “A writer, contrary to the popular opinion, does not write books. A writer writes texts.” 


Q: With Cut Shortcomings (above and below), you’ve taken a graphic novel by Adrian Tomine, a sequential narrative, and removed the visual information and the text. When read in its new configuration, does the book tell a story? Does it have a different kind of narrative arc?

A: Adrian Tomine’s original graphic novel is a complex narrative using text and imagery. It’s a story about an Asian American man living in the US in an intimate relationship with an Asian woman. As the story unfolds it tells the events about the protagonist, Ben Tanaka, in his failed relationships and conflicted self-identity as an Asian American. The content is as evocative and relevant today, eight years after it was published. I responded to both the content of the book as well as to the systemic nature of the visual layout.


Before discussing why I selected Tomine’s book, I’d like to give a brief backstory about my decision to use this book. This isn’t the first time I worked with this genre or comic book. In 1979 using a Disney comic entitled, The Beagle Boys vs. Uncle Scrooge, was my first departure from fine art photography into working with existing imagery and text. Using a surgeon’s blade, I meticulously cut out sections of background in the cartoon scenes on every recto page, an endeavor of many hours and days that was both painstaking and tedious. The verso images thus appear randomly excised, while the figures on the recto page now seem to float in space, as the underlying cartoon pages become a default backdrop. 


The synthesis of the upper and lower pages is constantly shifting, unlike a photograph, which collapses space and is fixed. Turning the pages creates arbitrary scenes and shadows that interact with the remaining figures in a continuous reanimation of the formerly static images. When The Beagle Boys vs. Uncle Scrooge was finally complete I thought I would never endeavor such a project again. Not because I didn’t appreciate the result but due to the extended time in completing the project.

All these years later, after working extensively with the scalpel, I developed a Zen-like patience and could concentrate on a body of work over a period of weeks, months even years. When I discovered, ‘Shortcomings’ it renewed my interest in transforming Tomine’s graphic novel into making a ‘mash up’ of the content and narrative.

The genre of this art form with seven to nine cells per page, in a gridded format, is drawn in black and white with ‘speech bubbles’ floating overhead the characters in the book. Cut Shortcomings is the dissection and outlining of the drawings and speech bubbles using an X-acto knife. The recto/verso sides are almost identical in cell structure, with some variation. Regardless, on one side the viewer can trace the original image and on the opposite side sees the same image but in the arbitrary framework. Reducing the content to line drawings, the pages become veiled layers, a meticulous essence of the story that the brain comprehends as both linear and abstract.

Between the two, narrative and abstraction, the viewer is invited to literally read between the lines. Lastly, by removing the recognizable forms of the silhouetted speech balloons and figures the essence of the narrative appears chaotic within each frame. Democratizing the information within the cells means there’s no hierarchy between the empty spaces of the speech bubbles and cut shapes of the people. Reading from left to right, up and down and theiropposites incorporates the process and cultural reading biases or directions. Regardless of which direction the reader begins, the sequential time base of the codex has collapsed into a three dimensional, fragmented, non-linear experience. As I remove the outlined contents of heads, figures, minuscule slivers of recognizable objects on the recto side, I collect them. By suggesting the excised bits could be returned to their original spaces, albeit with an expressive and sloppy reunion, Cut Shortcomings becomes a verb, an endless and collaborative artwork; instead of a finite object or noun, I or another artist could repurpose.

Photos courtesy JHB Gallery 

Doug Beube is a mixed media artist working in bookwork, collage, sculpture and photography. He received his BFA in Film in 1974 from York University in Toronto, Canada and his MFA in Photography from the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY in 1983. Beube worked as darkroom assistant to Minor White in Arlington, MA, before moving to Brooklyn in 1984. From 1992-2012 he was curator of The Allan Chasanoff Bookwork Collection that was donated to the Yale University Art Gallery culminating in the 2014 exhibition entitled, Odd Volumes: Book Art from the Allan Chasanoff Collection. Beube is an active educator and has taught classes in artists' books, collage, mixed media and photography at various universities throughout Canada Europe and the US. He conducted numerous workshops, including the Penland Schools of Crafts, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and The Center for Book Arts. Beube regularly lectures throughout Canada, Europe and the US, and serves on the Brooklyn Public Library exhibition committee. His work is extensively exhibited nationally and internationally and is included in numerous private and public collections. In 2011, Doug Beube: Breaking the Codex was published by Etc. Etc. The Iconoclastic Museum Press. This 30-year survey includes an introduction by David Revere McFadden, former chief curator of the Museum of Art and Design in New York, and essay contributions from several well-known writers, critics and curators. Doug Beube is represented by JHB Gallery in New York, NY.



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