Shades of White
a Performative Examination of the works of Ronald King
Upon initial inspection, the works of Ronald King are difficult to categorize. Many of his works are collaged arrays of color and text while others are a distilled and minimalistic work of white on white. The dynamic range of his work is further layered by a distinctly performative element that is embedded in the experience of examining one of his artist books. Beyond painting or graphic design, these visceral visual works of miniature paper sculpture compel the viewer-performer to not only experience them, but to enter into a performance with them. Using visual elements that are varied and complex King creates works that are made to be experienced. The pages are not merely representational of a performance, but are instead the script and set for the viewer-performer.
Here I will begin by briefly examining the roots of the visual book. A survey of Keith Smith’s Structure of the Visual Book will frame how one to study the components of King’s works. Finally, I will critically examine the experience of viewing the white on white compositions by King in connection to the performative nature of his work with the visual book as a medium.
A Moment of Disclosure
Before critically examining the work of King, it is important that I disclose my own biases and motivations in regards to dealing with visual media and the visual medium. My area of research and scholarship is currently described as Media Design. This specifically relates to design for the stage, though it could be broadly applied to all performance spaces. This ambiguous title requires an expansive toolbox of skills, and as such media designers are often responsible for: obtaining and installing equipment, designing media playback or interactive systems that produce the desired illusion of a production or installation, programming software to operate within the specified parameters of a project, and designing and generating the artwork. Creating and designing a visual book, or artist book, encompasses many of the same responsibilities. Here the designer is responsible for not only generating the final product, but also designing the process of its manufacture, collecting the materials for production, crafting an experience for the viewer-performer, and generating the artwork for the book. My work is dictated by screens and digital projections, and King’s is grounded in paper and ink.
Central to the dialogue about the use of technology in performance is the question of interactivity: is interactive technology appropriate if the audience is unable to distinguish between a real-time system and one that is simply playing back previously generated content. It is in this question that King’s work has the most relevance to me. Artist books require interaction; in fact they are predicated upon the assumption that the viewer-performer will choose to both interact with them, and generate meaning out of that interaction. The corporality of the physical form requires the viewer-performer to enter into a performance with the artifact. It is this observation that drives my inquiry and fuels my interest in King’s work; similarly, it is this focus that also creates a corresponding blind spot in my analysis that must be recognized.
The Visual Book – Roots aren’t just for Trees
Somewhere between sculpture and poster, between collage and graphic design, between installation and performance lies the spirit of the artist book. While the form has roots that stretch back as far as Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, artist books are really a form that belongs to the late 20th century. One can see the beginnings of today’s artist books as framed by the tumultuous changes in graphic design and advertising in the early 1900’s. The period often referred to as Plakatstil, or Poster Style, spans the years from 1900 to 1930 and its design was characterized by simple graphics that were composed of flat colors and simple type arrangements (Schaller 30). Incorporating lessons of composition and line from the Art Nouveau movement, Plakatstil moved away from the purely ornamental and instead designers focused on creating a distilled image of the angular and industrial. Embedded in this larger trend is the explosion of expressionist graphic design during the period of 1905-1922. Abstract expressionism especially “took on a distinctive, primitive visual language. The human figure and natural elements were distorted and stretched to emphasize the meaning of the art and for dramatic effect” (Schaller 32). As expressionism began to draw to close, the Bauhaus design movement, and school, began to take shape. Influenced by Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, and De Stijl art styles, Bauhaus created a unique learning environment for graphic design, art, and industrial design (Schaller 34). In the middle of this turbulent period in design, the experiments of the Avent-Garde Italian futurists, and later the Russian futurists would form the basis of the contemporary artist book. More importantly, their theories and manifestos would establish the idiomatic framework of the form. In her examination of performance art from futurism to the present, Goldberg notes that futurists “turned to performance as the most direct means of forcing an audience to take note of their ideas,” and quotes the Italian futurist Ardengo Scoffici as writing “the spectator [must] live at the center of the painted action” (14). This insistence about the role of the spectator is fundamental to the experience of viewing an artist book. The spectator must be at the center of the experience. In fact, in order to fully engage with the work, the viewer-performer must interact with the object. This declaration about the proximity of the spectator and action was later built upon by the Bauhaus school of design. Goldberg notes that “unlike the rebellious Futurist or Dada provocations, Gropius’s Romantic Bauhaus manifesto had called for the unification of all the arts in a ‘cathedral of Socialism’ ” (97). Out of the Bauhaus school designers were creating works that were no longer singular entities. Instead the school focused on teaching students an interdisciplinary approach to creating new works. It is this composited approach to design that truly gives life to the idea of the artist book. Born of the rebellious Futurist demand for art as confrontation, the artist book is also tempered by the romantic ideas of unification and complete composition from the Bauhaus school. The artist book is simultaneously built upon an understanding of conventionality and rebellion. Far from being a book that one might find at a library, more often it is a miniature interactive kinetic painted sculpture masquerading as a book.
The Visual Book – Structure
Keith Smith’s Structure of the Visual Book is a comprehensive examination of trends and conventions in artist books. In it he calls attention to several ways in which this medium can be examined: the book as object, convention, composition, distance, color, shadow, transition, and physical interaction. Keith’s conventions provide a scaffolding for analyzing King’s works, and help to provide a frame for how to understand the visual book.
The Book as Object
A book, in the traditional sense, is a series of bound pages that contain information. Any trip to a bookstore or library will confirm that books can be comprised entirely of illustration, photography, text, or any combination of those media forms. Further, books – as objects – are classified as being physically manifest. Though a new special case of book, the electronic book, has come into cultural relevance in the past decade, it is important to note that these new forms are marked by language that specifically denotes their digital status. These new forms are referred to by generic terms like ebooks and epub editions, or by their brand affiliations like kindle editions or iBook. The book proper, however, continues to carry the status of a fully physical object. This is an important distinction as the book is often conceived of in relation to the information that it contains. A book with blank pages, for example, may be interpreted instead as a journal. The cultural notion of book is predicated upon its physical manifestation as well as the assumption that it contains some form of valuable, or at least novel, information.
The artist book uses these assumptions and often plays off of the viewer-performer’s expectations for interacting with a traditional book. A fine example of this is King’s All White Alphabet. This work begins with two wooden panels with geometric inlayed designs. These wooden panels act as the front and back cover for the book. Between these two panels are accordion folded pages of heavy weight hand-made paper that comprise the book. Each accordion fold contains a single letter from the alphabet. The letter is centered in the crease of the fold and is framed by an embossed square with rounded edges. The letter in each crease is created using various origami or pop-up techniques to craft a three dimensional letterform – sometimes realistic and sometimes abstract. The book is double sided, that is to say that half of the alphabet is on one side of the accordion folds, and the other half of the alphabet is on the reverse. The entire book fits inside of a book sleeve made of cardboard and fabric crafted to snuggly hold the book in the closed position. This work feels distinctly like a book, but also breaks several of the rules associated with this class of objects: it reads forward to back, but also reads backwards to forwards; it resembles a children’s pop-up book, but is crafted with materials that make it distinctly unlike a children’s book. The combination of its qualities makes it resemble an artistic artifact that has some of the characteristics of a book, rather than simply a book. The features of this form often highlight the status of the book as a specific object, and not just as a part of a class of objects. The novelty of the experience interacting with this composition ensures that the viewer-performer will interact differently with the artifact. In changing the relationship between book and reader, the artist also challenges the previously established roles associated with this pairing.
More than just established roles, the artist book often targets cultural conventions and assumptions in its construction. As previously discussed, the object class of book carries a multilayered structure of presuppositions about its intellectual content and structure. Books have a physical presence; that is that they exist in three dimensions and have weight. Additionally, though books are created in various sizes, they tend to have both an upper and lower limit in their printed manifestation. A book that is too narrow or too wide may be too clumsy or awkward to carry or read. Books that stray outside of a normative distribution of sizes also run the risk of not fitting on shelves with other books. This is often common with “coffee table” books comprised primarily of illustration or photography. While these may seem like an all too banal observations, it is important to recognize that while books come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, they tend to fit inside of culturally established expectations of dimension. This is a fine example of the kind of invisible conventions that are often associated with books. Other conventions about these objects can be described as assumptions about how every book should look or behave. For example, books are assumed to progress in a linear fashion from beginning to end (cover to cover). They are also assumed to be constructed so that they open, and so that pages turn, from right to left. Western culture typically reads from left to right across a page, and from the top of the page to the bottom. These established rules for the behavior of information inside of books ensure that the viewer-performer is primed to expect this from every interaction with one of these objects. Smith points out in the Structure of the Visual Book that artist books sometimes break the convention of pagination by following patterns that resemble poetry – AA, AB, AC, AA, AB, AC. Here each letter might correspond to the structure or organization of a page, or it might relate to a pattern in the presentation of text or illustration. In choosing to break from the conventional the artist focuses the attention of the viewer, and has the opportunity to comment or question our established norms.
King breaks many established conventions with his works, but in particular Anansi Company carries the most obvious challenges to traditional patterns. Anansi Company, comes in a large fabric covered box with engraved and painted lettering. The abstract pattern on the box calls to mind a sense of the tribal and is colored in black and purple. As the viewer-performer opens the box instead of bound pages one finds a series of folded folios. Offset lithography on handmade oversized paper bombards the senses with texture and color. Each folio is decorated with a combination of collaged photographs, illustration, calligraphy, and type. Upon opening the folio the viewer-performer is presented with a poem or song on the left side of the page, and a wire and paper puppet on the right side of the page. Instead of a structured narrative, Anansi Company instead gives the viewer-performer a rough script of poetry, songs, and legends that are to be interpreted and acted out with the puppets. An average puppet is eight inches wide, and twelve inches tall. Here King unabashedly attacks the idea of what a book should be. Far from a self-contained and fixed artifact, King has instead created a work that is perpetually in-flux; a work that is an explicitly shared partnership between the artifact and the viewer-performer.
Color is a powerful tool in relation to media, especially printed media. In addition to thinking about the application and use of color, it is also important to consider the operational constraints involved in its use in print media. With the rise of the screen as the primary window of media consumption there is a shift in the kind of color data that individuals consume on a daily basis. The color that human the eye perceives when viewing a screen is emitted color. A light source behind the screen emits a bright white light which is then transformed into the color that one sees as it passes through a layer of liquid crystals. The color that is generated by a screen is “mixed” out of variations of red, green, and blue. Orange, for example is mixed out of red and green. Alternatively, the color that one sees when looking at a printed page is reflected color. In this case, the light from another source (a light fixture or the sun) bounces off of the surface of an object scattering and absorbing some wavelengths of light while reflecting others. Color for print media can be created using process-colors, or spot-colors. Process-color generates a desired shade by combining varying amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. This is the kind of color that’s typically used in advertising, and traditionally printed books. Again using the example of orange, the same shade mixed out of red and green for a screen is made by mixing magenta and yellow for print. Spot color is the application of a specific color that has been premixed to be only that unique hue. Orange, in this case, is made of only orange ink. Spot colors and paints tend to have a richer and vibrant visual element. By using spot color and paint, King uses color in a manner that’s visually stunning.
King sometimes chooses to use bright vibrant color, and at other times elects to use only white paper in his works. In Matisse’s Model King first sources salvaged traditional books that would otherwise be destroyed. These salvaged books are then laser cut with a pattern that resembles one of the cut-out works of Matisse. In the middle of the book a reflective Mylar sheet is glued between pages to create a mirror effect in the middle of the book. The rest of the pages of the book are then glued to one another creating a book where only the front and back covers open. On this sculptural book King then paints in vibrant blends of blue, yellow, red, and purple. The resulting stunning combination is part sculpture, painting, and recycled hardcover. In Anansi Company King uses spot colors applied with offset lithography as a technique for creating layered blocks of color, illustration, and print. While the technical execution of this kind of color is vastly different than Matisse’s Model, King’s playfulness and exuberance with bright vibrant pigment is the same.
King’s evidenced passion for color makes the choice to use only white in a series of works all the more interesting. Circus Turn, Turn Over Darling, and the All White Alphabet are three works were King deliberately abstains from using any color in the pages of his books. These striking works are characterized by shadow and texture, and consequently feel bare and exposed. Here King pushes the viewer-performer to scrutinize the works for detail and meaning.
The purposeful use of shadow is a bold technique to embrace, and not an easy approach to tame. In working exclusively with shadows, King is electing to paint with light. Light painting most often refers to a technique used by photographers when composing long-exposure photographs. This method creates images that are characterized by long trails of light over dark backgrounds. King’s approach, on the other hand, focuses on using differences in the height of the printed surface to obstruct or allow light to shade and color the surfaces of his work. Unlike painting with brush strokes, King is painting with miniature architecture. His use of curved surfaces tends to create shadows that have a softer edge and blurred appearance. Hard lines and sharp angles create shadows that are angular with crisp lines. Photographers and installation artists always think about the position of three objects in creating their work: the position of the subject, the light source, and the position of the viewer or camera. King must also consider these three variables in working with shadow as the primary medium. While the installation artist or photographer has very precise control of the position and intensity of the light being used, King does not have that luxury. This makes his skillful manipulation of light all the more impressive. This can most effectively be be seen by studying his white on white works.King’s white on white works can broadly be separated into two distinct varieties characterized by their method of construction: wire form and pop-up. Circus Turns uses a wire form approach. King first bends lengths of fourteen-gauge wire into shapes that resemble individuals or objects. These wire shapes are then set into a papermaking screen. Hand made paper is then drenched in water and pressed into the screen and left to dry. The dry paper retains a negative of the wire-form pressed into it while it was wet. Individual spreads are then folded and hand bound to create the finished work. The resulting image is seen both as a positive, and as a negative of the original wireframe work. One face of the spread will mimic wire on the screen creating a positive image – here the raised portions of paper cast shadows onto the flat surface of the page. The reverse face of this same spread creates a negative – in this case the valleys created in the paper by the wire act as pools of shadow.
King’s pop-up approach uses a technique of folding and cutting in order to force portions of the page to sit at some angle away from the otherwise flat surface. In the All White Alphabet King uses this approach. In the case of the letter “F,” three partial rectangles are cut into a single sheet of hand made paper. These partial rectangles are then folded in such a manner as to create a letterform that pops off of the page when the spread is open at an obtuse angle. The letter “X” is created with two horizontal lines cut into the surface of the paper. The paper is first folded in half, and then only the center section is folded twice more to create two diagonal lines that bisect one another. Here the resulting highlight that’s created on the edge of each folded surface creates the letterform. King sculpts each individual letter into an architectural marvel of paper and light. In observation, King’s methods of folding and cutting read simultaneously as both obvious and stunningly clever – choices that seem as though they are the only possible solutions, and yet also intriguingly novel.
Both of the above techniques provide for an interesting visual experience, but it’s worth reiterating that the wire-form method feels more organic and more human. This may be related to his choice of subject matter for these forms, but it seems that it’s also related to the nature of the curved lines created by the bending wire. The pop-up technique creates imagery that feels distinctly architectural, constructed and engineered; while the wire-pressed technique draws on a very different sense of aesthetic. This aesthetic quality is inherent to the nature of the shadows that are created. The pop-up book creates hard shadows, lines that bisect space. This elicits a sense of the city skyline in the viewer-performer. Meanwhile the curved indentures of the wire-pressed pages are softer. The curvature of the line creates a softer gradient of shadow that falls into and out of the creases on the page, mimicking the curved shape of the human form.
Beyond the aesthetic, physically interacting with King’s works is central to the act of fully experiencing the books. Physical contact with these pieces contextualize them as well as synchronizing the viewer-performer with the action of the works. The act of turning the page, for example, “reveals the order of viewing” (Smith 12). This seemingly inconsequential convention is important when considering how the artist book may stray from established norms of viewership. Smith points out that “the book is a single experience, a compound picture of the many separate sheets” (Smith 12). While the book might represent an individual moment, Smith also writes that “in the codex this single experience is revealed in slivers. The total is perceived and exists only as a retention of an afterimage in the mind. The codex is never seen at once” (12). Here Smith is referring to the codex as the entire composition of the book. His observation emphasizes that the viewer-performer is only presented with a single spread of pages at a time, a sliver. King’s books often make use of imagery or sculpture on multiple surfaces; as such, one cannot see all of the surfaces simultaneously. Smith is suggesting that the viewer-performer must therefore mentally reassemble these slivers into a single composite of all the presented pages. This is evidenced in King’s white on white works, and profoundly demonstrated in his large format work. Anansi Company, for example, requires much more from the viewer because of the size of the pages. The viewer-performer is asked to interact and perform with the puppets, not just passively consume the art quietly. Here turning the page is not only about advancing the narrative, but exploring the artwork and story as a single intertwined thread. Anansi Company’s structure also suggests that the experience might well be nonlinear. As discussed earlier, the book is a series of puppets with only broad outlines about the characters and suggested narrative. This places the viewer in the position to perform the roles of a writer, director, and actor. Anansi Company stands as a challenge to the viewer-performer to create the meaning of the work with the artist. Viewing these pages sequentially is a distinctly dissatisfying experience when one might instead open every folio, spread out every puppet, and explore – at will – the imaginary world of King’s characters.
Similar to the concepts that are inherent in the forward momentum of turning the page, one must also consider the nature of the two-sided display. In a traditional book pages progress linearly left to right, top to bottom, front to back. In an artist book, the front and the back of a page may or may not be directly related, or ordered linearly. King takes this idea and plays with the perceived forwards and backwards orientation of images and time. His work Turn over Darling is a series of nudes made with the same wire-form method of Circus Turn. Interesting here is that each bust or waist is connected to the image of the previous. As the reader looks through the pages each one is interconnected to the next. A more apt description of this technique can be expressed through patterning. The pattern of images that progresses through the work can be represented as the following where a capital letter represents a positive image (a raised effect in the paper), and a lowercase letter represents a negative (an indented effect in the paper): a, AB, bc, CD, d. Using this method of describing the patterning one can see that while the image of the bust or waist persists from one spread to the next, it is also transformed – changing to either a positive or negative image. This is the same technique used in Circus Turn. King’s purposeful manipulation of linearity and time for the viewer raises questions about how the viewer-performer might examine this work. What direction should this work be read in, if ultimately it feels reversible. Is it imperative that one start at the front or the back? Could one start in the middle? Here the only reference points for the content of the book are tied to the covers – the viewer’s only guideposts for beginning and end.
The act of turning the page in King’s works is about advancing the experience as much as it is about creating compound images in the viewers mind. Deeply tied to the experience of the white on white works is King’s use of transition from one element to the next. Smith writes that “transition is the interrelationship of the elements of the book. Transition is conceptual, visual, and physical. It might be predominately one or another, but it is necessarily a combination of all three” (79).
A Performance of Paper and Hands
While many artist books exhibit novel or interesting characteristics, King’s works stand out as defined by the relationship they manifest between the object and the viewer-performer. The characteristics of interacting with King’s works depart from the observation of a piece of art, and are instead markedly performance-like in nature. In particular the white on white works partner with the viewer-performer to create a short scene performed for an audience of one.
Upon first interacting with one of these pieces the observer first must remove the book from its protective sleeve. The nature of the design for the sleeves of these works makes them exceedingly snug. The result of this physical property of the object is that one cannot casually open the book. Rather, one must set aside all other items to focus exclusively on this task, the execution of which might be described as a clown-surgery. Being struck by the delicate nature of these books, one cannot simply manhandle them into submission, but instead must negotiate with flush edges and tight corners. The viewer-performer will have to investigate an array of permutated techniques for extracting the book. A shake here, a finger nail there; a wedged finger, and a tap on the table before a nervous glance to see if anyone is watching. An exasperated sigh leads to a close inspection of the object for a missed secret to its unlocking. Another round of delicate operations is required before a moment of triumphant glee is experienced at succeeding in the simple task of removing a slipcover. Here the observer has entered into a relationship with this object playing multiple roles – explorer, problem solver, frustrated patron, gleeful victor – before seeing a single spread of the work. Prior to opening the book, King has already transformed the simple observer into a participant and object manipulator.
The conventions that dictate the normative behavior of interacting with a book suggest that the next operation should be to open the cover. Inside the viewer-performer is greeted with nothing but white surfaces. Missing words, the viewer is left to search for another means of determining the content of the book. In the All White Alphabet, Circus Turn, and Turn Over Darling the viewer is presented with a broken convention of direction. Without text one is allowed to linger or pass by pages at any tempo. Further, the direction of examining the book is mutable. It can be examined forwards or backwards, right-side up or upside down. In this circumstance the viewer is allowed tremendous latitude for the manner in which the books “content” is to be enjoyed. Reading with ones fingers, feeling the texture and fold of the pages is just as important as visual examination. The book becomes both a set piece and a sculpture to be explored and traversed.
The absence of color in these works does not diminish their brilliance. Instead, it accents the world in which the book is being examined. By changing ones orientation to a light source, the shading and aesthetic feel of the surface changes dramatically. White surfaces are also tremendously efficient at picking up reflected color. The color of a nearby table, wall, or article of clothing lends a wash of hue that is both subtle and prismatic in presentation. The viewer-performer, confronted with this control creates new meaning and character by changing the spatial orientation of the book in relation to other colorful objects and light sources. To be unambiguous, while this quality may be inherent to the design of the book there is no preset series of actions – the viewer-performer changes the book by interacting with it; equally, the viewer is changed by the book.
The resulting partnership is of two performers improvising a scene predicated upon a simple suggestion from the artist: read me. Beyond turning pages, the viewer-performer is now locked in an exploratory dance: turn one page, turn two, make a curious discovery, go back to the beginning, stare lost in thought, stroke the corner of one page, lean close and hold at arms length. It is not long before the relationship is dictated by the transitions between moments, and the memory of first discoveries. A scene past its punch line, the viewer-performer lets the act come to a close. The book is given one last moment of scrutiny, before being delicately slipped back into its cover.
King’s works resist singular label. Beyond sculpture or painting, and more nuanced than visual book his works invite the viewer into a shared short performance. The all white works, especially, are characterized by a distinctly performative element embedded in their examination. Missing conventional norms of interaction, the pages invite the viewer-performer to create meaning through novel and playful interaction: an interaction that is fueled by the subtly brilliant work Ronald King.
Ronald King – Born in Brazil in 1932, King moved to England at the age of twelve. Following art school and four years working as an art director in Canada, he returned to England with his young family and in 1967 and formed Circle Press to design, print and distribute artists books. Since then he has collaborated with more than 100 artists, writers and poets to produce a world-class body of work unique in its variety and quality. Ronald King’s own work and that of Circle Press is represented in public and private collections worldwide (Spring Share). The name Circle Press was chosen by Ronald in part to embody the idea of a supported framework of like-minded artists that share an artistic vision (Circle Press).
Circle Press. Circle Press History. 2012. Circle Press. December 2012 <http://www.circlepress.com/history/index.html>.
Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001.
King, Ronald and Roy Fisher. “Anansi Company.” London: Circle Press, 1992.
King, Ronald. Circus Turn. London: Circle Press, 1994.
—. Matisse’s Model. London: Circle Press, n.d.
—. The White Alphabet. London: Circle Press, 1984.
—. Turn Over Darling. London: Circle Press, 1990.
Ragan, Matthew. “Research | Art Books.” October 2012. Flickr.com. December 2012 <http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewragan/sets/72157631739931759/>.
Schaller, Scott. Graphic Design: the making of 20th centry pop culture. 1st Edition. 2002.
Shortbus. By John Cameron Mitchell. Dir. John Cameron Mitchell. THINKFilm, Fortissimo Films, Q Television. THINKFilm, 2006.
Smith, Keith A. Structure of the Visual Book. Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1984.
Spring Share. The books of Ron King in the Artists’ Books Collection at IUPUI’s Herron School of Art Library . Spring Share. Decemeber 2012 <http://libraryschool.campusguides.com/content.php?pid=328364&sid=2686492>.