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Olin Library exhibit debuts “Reading the Object: A Decade (or so) of Books by Julie Chen”

(Danielle Toriumi) Chen's book,
(Danielle Toriumi)
Chen’s book, “Family Tree” consists of 16 wooden blocks that explore ideas of family.

Mills alumna of 1989 and book art professor since 1996, Julie Chen, is being highlighted in the Olin Library with a new exhibit featuring a ten-year retrospective of her work.

The exhibit, located in the gallery near the F.W. Olin Library entrance and the Heller Rare Book Room, is entitled “Reading the Object: A Decade (or so) of Books by Julie Chen” and will be available for public viewing from March 28 through May 31.

Janice Braun, Special Collections librarian and director of the Olin Library and Mills Center for the Book, organized this exhibit as a celebration and revisitation of Chen’s work for the ten-year anniversary of her first exhibit at Mills.

A little more than a decade ago, Braun first approached Chen about putting together an exhibition of her work in the library, and Chen readily accepted.

“That was my first solo show at Mills, and that was really nice for me, because I had been working there for ten years by the time I had that show,” Chen said. “It was exciting to have a show [at the Olin Library] and have my students attend.”

Though many book artists prefer to showcase their work in galleries, Chen has always been drawn to displaying her books in libraries where people can actually read and interact with them in the way they are meant to be interacted with. She views reading — even reading artists’ books like those she creates — as an intimate and individual act between a book and its reader, in which readers must be able to manipulate the book’s physical structure to experience them fully.

“A lot of people feel like book art, artists’ books, should be viewed only as art and therefore should be in galleries, but I personally feel like the library is a really appropriate place to show artists’ books, because in the end they’re still books. The home of books is the library and not necessarily the gallery,” Chen said. “I’m always really happy to have artist book shows in libraries.”

(Danielle Toriumi)
(Danielle Toriumi)
“Chrysalis” explores the complex and transformative nature of the process of grief in a sculptural book held together by magnets. Small circular pages inside can be held and read.

“Reading the Object” is an overview of the art she has produced in the decade since her first exhibit at Mills, spanning from the first book she published after that exhibit ended, to one that went into print earlier in 2016. 

The biggest change that her work has undergone in the past ten years, Chen notes, is the technology used to produce it. The past ten years have opened up a new world of possibilities for book artists like Chen in the form of digital printing technologies. Several of her books, she said, would not have been possible without advancing digital art technology. As opposed to traditional forms of book art, which are letterpress printed and bound by hand, Chen has been experimenting more and more with digital methods of design and printing, including laser cutting on photopolymer plates. One book on display, “Composite Impressions,” was created and printed entirely digitally, only the second book of hers to be made this way.

Alex Post, the Olin Library Archives and Manuscripts librarian, worked closely with Braun and Chen in developing the exhibit and said that Chen’s dozens of interactive books and prints are among her favorite things in the Special Collections at Mills.

“I just think it’s really cool to have [a collection from] someone who’s just this renown book artist,” Post said. “She teaches here, she was a student here, and we have this really unique collection of fantastic books of hers.”

In honor of the exhibit and of Chen’s 30th anniversary as a published, working book artist, her publishing company, Flying Fish Press, will be working in conjunction with the Mills Center for the Book to produce a printed catalogue of her work.

Chen will be hosting an opening reception and presentation of her work in the Heller Rare Book Room on April 10 at 2 p.m., where her art will be available for viewing and her catalogue will be available for purchase.