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What can books become? A response to this query may be found in "Bookman," (2010), an exuberant sculpture of a man, made entirely of discarded library books. The work, a self-portrait by Barry "Butch" Sigel, was, until the week before last, on view in an adjunct gallery space, at Westbeth, the artists' community, in the Far West Village. Now partially dismantled, it is scheduled to be exhibited again in a storefront window on the ground floor of the complex.Bisected at the waist by a colorful tablelike structure made of inlaid book covers, "Bookman" appears to be in contrapposto position, standing with most of his weight shifted to his right leg, or, possibly, seated, at his own table that bears the weight of his midsection made of two stacks of books. In contrast to the heaviness of his trunk, his arms, fashioned out of paperbacks strung together at their center with metal pipes, move lightly and expressively: his left hand sits playfully on his hip, and his right arm is upturned with his palm extended in a welcoming gesture. While the face, arms, and the right hand of the figure are sculpted — which, possibly disturbing to some, required the cutting of books — the legs and feet are fashioned simply by stacking books of various sizes in a single pile. In Sigel's earlier self-portrait, "Bookhead" (2009), discarded books are ingeniously stacked, arranged, and shaped to form a head with a large, protruding nose. As in the later work, "Bookhead" incorporates black line drawing for features, in this case eyes, mouth, mustache, and ears.
With titles, such as Confessions of Taoist on Wall Street (by David Payne), House of Mirth (by Edith Wharton), and Culture and Mental Health (insufficent title information for a link) plainly readable on the spines of his books, "Bookman" evokes a man that is his own bookshelf, or perhaps, a man that is the embodiment of his life as a reader. I couldn't help but see in "Bookman" also, a metaphor for the intensely powerful physical and personal engagement one can have with printed books, that can't be had with digital information. In the midst of the digital age, libraries must also maintain their rapidly expanding collections of printed volumes. With his bookshelf weight, and his beckoning paperback hand, "Bookman" represents to me, lastly, both the burden and the happiness found in our connection with books.
As the "DISCARDED" stamps on their fore edges declare, these books were removed or "weeded," (a practice common to many college and public libraries, including the branch libraries of the NYPL, where seldom-used, out of date or damaged materials are routinely withdrawn) from the collection of the Fashion Institute of Technology, where Sigel teaches painting, drawing and design. He created "Bookman," for the "Art From Books," contest sponsored by FIT's Gladys Marcus Library in 2010 as part of its annual LYL (Love Your Library) event, and encouraged his students to likewise submit entries, which several of them did. "Bookhead" was entered in the library's contest for 2009. His classroom assignments sometimes require the use of found objects, and he has been inspired by the works his students have created using such things as straws and small plastic cups. An artist who has focused on self-portrait, Sigel usually works in painting, drawing and collage, but he was inspired by the library's challenge to creatively use its discarded books. "I kept going back and back to the library for books," he said.
Disclaimer: It should go without saying that one would never use the books that are part of any library's actively circulating collection in any way that would permanently change or disfigure them.