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Exhibition in the Artists' Books Study Area at the Library
School of Art, Media and Design, UWE Bristol:
25th January - 29th February 2004
Les Coleman
Books, Pamphlets and Printed Ephemera
With the overriding move to break with traditional, medium led art practice in the fifties and sixties, some artists saw publishing as a flexible and viable alternative for the exploration of ideas. At the same time it provided an opportunity to erode notions of the exclusive, individual artwork setting up a platform for work to reach a wider audience beyond the confines of the gallery system. Self-publishing in particular allowed artists to take full control of content, production and distribution.

What started out as a loose political stance for Swiss artist
Dieter Roth (1930-1998) with his handmade books, George Maciunas (1931-1978) and the printed ephemera of those artists associated with Fluxus and Dick Higgins (1938-1998), Something Else Press publications had a doubled edge objective. Both to broaden culture while simultaneously infiltrating a broader culture. Within the last thirty years this situation has changed considerably. As interest has increased in artists’ books so has the institutionalised setting up of specialist courses for their study creating a vogue, rather like public art, for practice rather than serving any real purpose. It is as if the initial raison d’ étre for the activity, which was essentially avant-garde, has been undermined through recognition and approval causing practice to become increasingly insignificant.

My own preference within publishing is the production of items, however ephemeral, where aesthetics are controlled by economics making content available at low cost. The printing and binding of lavish books in limited quantities and sold primarily to collectors and libraries is not a concern of mine. In many ways I see it as a disservice to publishing where exclusivity operates to deny my own wish to proliferate ideas.

My first book
'The Jewish Banana' (Number Nineteen, 1973) is a collection of absurd drawings on the theme of male and female genitalia. In all respects it is a regular book with a content that would have offended most, if not all, mainstream publishers. At the time the term artists’ books was not part of my vocabulary. Since then I have published another fourteen books, numerous ephemeral items and contributed material to journals and magazines.

Two titles
'Bookmark' (In House Publishing, 1988), with Charlie Holmes, and 'Glue' (In House Publishing, 2002) play self-consciously with the format of a book and their self-referential nature would, to my mind, classify them as artists’ books i.e. those ideas that are dependent of being realised as books. '180 grammes' (In House Publishing, 1989), a collection of notebook jottings, takes it title from the book’s physical weight. With 'My Right Hand' (White Lies Publications, 1982) is a series of drawings of small domestic items drawn with my right hand. I am left-handed and the drawings were produced in roughly one hour. The book, designed by Steve Wheatley closely mimics a Silverline school exercise book of the period, complete with a list of metric tables on the back cover. But in the main I use books as repositories for ideas often when there is a theme involved as with my collections of aphorisms 'Unthoughts' (Ink Sculptors, 1992), 'Unthinking' (Littlewood Arc, 1993) and 'Unthunk' (Errata, 2002).

My association with
Simon Cutts and Coracle Press began in 1977 and continues to the present. Coracle Press set up in 1975 was in a parade of shops on Camberwell New Road in South London. The small gallery had the appearance of being geographically misplaced but it was much more than a gallery once you entered. First and foremost Simon, who set up Coracle, was, and continues to be, an active poet and publisher. Coracle Press had its own press and guillotine with access to further printers and binding within the locality. This resulted in every exhibition having its own idiosyncratic invitation with most shows having an accompanying publication. On the occasion of ‘England v Italy’, my second show at Coracle Press, Simon published 'Kinds of Clouds' (Coracle Press, 1981). It was launched at the opening attached to helium filled balloons bearing details of the exhibition.

Coracle Press was a meeting place, an open house to artists and the like-minded. If you visited you could easily find yourself collating books for the afternoon or stuffing envelopes with invitations and ending up staying for a meal in the evening. There was even a badge which stated ‘I collated a book at Coracle Press ’. It was through Simon that I got to know Brian Lane who earlier had run Gallery Number Ten in Blackheath. Brian, who lived in Wyndham Road round the corner from Coracle Press was always giving practical support to the activities of the gallery and its publishing programme.

In 1986 Brian was responsible, with assistance from Simon and myself, for organising
‘The Artist Publisher’, an exhibition that went on at the Crafts Council Gallery in Waterloo Place, London SW1. The catalogue, which Brian edited, is an invaluable reference work examining the notion of artists’ publications in the widest possible sense while at the same time tracing the historical precedents that led to artists’ books. Brian died in 1999. A book commemorating his life and work 'The Printed Performance' (RGAP, 2000) gives an insight to his unique contribution to small-press publishing.

Charlie Holmes and I set up In House Publishing in 1989 on the understanding that we would only publish our own work. Our assets amount to a few ISBN numbers.

Les Coleman 2004

Books by Les Coleman are available from:
17 Pitfield Street
N1 6HB
Tel: 0207 6081 333

Boekie Woekie
Berenstraat 16
1016 GH
The Netherlands

Or  by email from: les@rt-i.org

For more information on this, or any of the Artists Book Events at CFPR, please contact:

Sarah Bodman
Research Associate for Artists' Books
Centre for Fine Print Research UWE, Bristol
Faculty of Art, Media and Design
Kennel Lodge Road

Tel: +44 (0)117 344 4747
Fax: +44 (0)117 344 4824


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