Rebecca Goodale’s artist’s books at UNE

Binding imagination
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  March 28, 2012

‘Higgins Beach Sketchbook’ Ink on paper with string and cloth bound case, by Rebecca Goodale, 10.5 by 8 by 1 inches, 2007.
As the seeds of spring burst from their burrows once more, a fine artist's book exhibit at the UNE Art Gallery brings a master's craftsmanship to a compelling ecological theme. "Lullaby for Maine" unfolds onto all three stories of the lovely and labyrinthine UNE Art Gallery, tucked in the portside of the University's Portland campus. Think of it as a career retrospective, but be aware, too, of its conceptual thesis; Rebecca Goodale has been doing this long enough to cover both perspectives ably. A professor of book arts at USM for over 30 years, she's also the faculty director at USM's Book Arts at Stone House, and the programmer at the Kate Cheney Chappell '83 Center for Book Arts. She's very possibly the medium's foremost practitioner in the state.

The bulk of "Lullaby" comes from Goodale's deep research into the extinct and endangered flora and fauna of our state; its books vivify, celebrate, and elaborate them, often with poetic flourishes, rich metaphor, and abundance of color. Their surfaces mirror her subjects' habitats, and the rhythm of their bindings borrows from their intricate and animate patterns.

Such as "Eggs," a vertically unfolding book of inkjet prints and ink on paper (at an ornate 6 by 4.5 by 1.5 inches) which illustrates the ova of Maine's endangered birds, from Black Tern to Atlantic Puffin to Harlequin Duck. Or her faithful hand-colored screen-print series of species of turtles whose habitats have become threatened (most at 16 by 16 inches). The declining "Black Racer," a snake still prevalent in other parts of the US, receives the most notable treatment, with a gorgeous, hand-colored 20-by-30-inch silkscreen print fashioned in 2000.

For those not solely concerned with Goodale's unorthodox field guide of endangered species, her most arresting ideas are to be discovered in the limitless ways in which she conceives of a book. "Pygmy Pond Lily," a "flag book and blind book" (the artist's terms) exploits a jack-in-the-box motif to an almost nightmarish degree, its fronds (made from paste paper and marbling on Tyvek silkscreen prints) creep in every direction. "Salix (Willow)," a "compound flag book," unfurls its immaculate silkscreen leaves in a drooping limb in a corner. The most triumphant of all is "Higgins Beach Sketchbook," a massive and brilliant work that shows the concept of an artist's book in its loosest form. Think of "Sketchbook" as a large, horizontal flipbook and you're getting there: Goodale ink-renders a shore bird in every stage of its landing, binds the pages with string and the covers with cloth, and suspends the images in a sort of floating column. It's as majestic as an accordion at full extension, yet has the effect of being light as a pile of feathers.

As promised, Goodale's books cover many walks of life in "Lullaby," but none seem to grant them so much imagination as do the subject of birds. The frailness of all her pieces echo nicely with the overarching ecological theme, but the avian ones help to pull Goodale's interpretation of books from their hidebound conventions. It's a pleasure to watch.

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