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Shelf Life
Every month, some of Toronto’s most renowned artists gather to show off their brainy, odd and obscure book collections. Inside the city’s only conceptual art book club.

(Jason McBride)

“The first rule of Book Club,” the artist Micah Lexier says, “is that no one is late.”

Well, almost no one. Right now, the members of Book Club – ten of the city’s foremost conceptual artists and, for lack of a more clever and all-encompassing phrase, art people – are waiting for Sarah Robayo Sheridan, the director of exhibitions and publications at Mercer Union, to show up. Book Club normally starts at 7 pm and Sheridan is almost a half hour late. The group nibbles on chocolate cookies and sips from large goblets of wine, passing the time with gossip about recent shows and prizes. But there’s a slightly perceptible anxiety. This is a fastidious group that, for the most part, takes rules, and precision, and order, and measurements, very seriously. The books in the house where Book Club is meeting this month, an adorable, art-festooned home owned by husband-and-wife artists Dave Dyment and Roula Partheniou, are arranged not alphabetically or by subject matter, but rather by size. The tops of their spines form perfectly level horizons on the bookshelves.

Book Club does not operate like a conventional book club, be it Oprah’s or your stepmother’s. It’s more of a highbrow kind of show-and-tell, with each member presenting and discussing favourite volumes from their various collections of artists books. No books are really read, strictly speaking, and rare are the titles that might even be described as fiction. The conversation doesn’t pivot on plot or character but instead on an artist’s biography, a book’s paper stock or its position in the annals of contemporary art history. The members of Book Club include the aforementioned individuals, as well as Michael Klein, who owns the Ossington gallery MKG127; artist Derek Sullivan, whose first solo show at The Power Plant opens this fall; Wendy Gomoll and Paul Van Kooy, who produce limited edition art and bookworks as Paul + Wendy Projects; writer and Book Bakery proprietor Derek McCormack; and the art critic and Magenta Magazine editor Bill Clarke. Klein points out that roughly a quarter of the group has worked at or sat on the board of Art Metropole, the artist-run centre and shop that specializes in artists books and multiples.

It’s not a terribly diverse group — all live and work downtown, and their average age hovers somewhere around 40 – but they’re unified even further by a shared aesthetic and an exuberant zeal for collecting. What they collect is rather specific. McCormack’s fondness for carnival, amusement park and holiday memorabilia, for example, unsurprisingly mirrors the subject matter of his books. The rest of the group likewise gravitate towards things that have some kinship with the conceptual work that they produce, exhibit and write about, work that’s often text-based, animated by literary strategies and references, or obsessed in some way with reading, writing and the material of words. This is a book club whose members — some of them, anyway — make work that is frequently about books or language, and who collect books that are often themselves about books and language, or about the making of books, or even about themselves as books. It’s a bit like a nerdy baseball team that meets once a month and, instead of practicing, talk about league stats.

When Sheridan finally arrives, Lexier, the most voluble member of the group, is in the middle of a story about Post-it notes. 3M has ceased production of Lexier’s favourite size of Post-it so he bought several packages of a larger size and asked his favourite letterpress printer, Lunar Caustic, to trim them to the desired width. He holds up some leftover, finger-thin, yellow off-cuts and says, grinning, “And these are perfect as bookmarks!”

Post-its, in fact, have a special place in the history of Book Club. The first unofficial gathering took place two years at Clarke’s apartment, when Dyment and Van Kooy were visiting. “We always talked about books,” Van Kooy says, “and we’d spend half the time pulling books off the shelf.” (There’s a lot to pull off; Clarke’s small bachelor is so overstuffed with art it’s even on the ceiling.) The rarer titles in Clarke’s extensive collection, however, each contained a distinctive feature: a thin Post-it upon which he had scrawled the provenance of the book, its condition, its value and where it might be cross-referenced in an exhibition catalogue. Instructions, essentially, for his parents: “If I’m hit by a truck tomorrow,” he says, “they’ll know not to just dump all the books indiscriminately into boxes and haul them off to some random used book shop.” (Clarke estimates his art book collection is worth between $7000 and $12,000.)

The notes were a kind of paratext – about how collecting serves as a kind of bulwark against mortality, perhaps – and they fascinated Dyment and Van Kooy. They told Lexier about the meeting and then invited him to the next, more formal, one, where Dyment and Partheniou showed their stuff. Book Club grew from there, with each additional member hosting the others and presenting his or her own collections. The group’s now fully cycled through its membership, and this evening’s gathering, the ninth, is a unique, one-off “update” session where all of the members will present something. In early June, Book Club plans a kind of field trip to Paul Marks’ house. Marks, one of the Raptors’ team doctors, is also one of the city’s foremost collectors of conceptual art, much of it by or somehow related to Marcel Duchamp.

Book Club assembles around a long dining table, their neat piles of books and ephemera in front of them like small paper wedding cakes. The Smiths play in the background. A framed print of Allen Ruppersberg’s Honey, I Rearranged The Collection hangs on the wall above. Partheniou presents first, beginning with Fiona Banner’s The Nam, a thousand-page, 280,000-word, shot-by-shot written description of six Vietnam War films, from Apocalypse Now to Platoon. “It’s not a book to be read,” Partheniou says, with some understatement. “It’s more sculptural.” She passes the fat, blue paperback around the table.

From there, and for the next two hours, each member will show and discuss their latest acquisitions. New gifts, things bought online, scavenged on trips to Brussels or New York. Some items are more fascinating than others — a magazine printed on a T-shirt; a book of photographs of trees hit by cars; Dyment’s large collection of witty whatsits by concrete poet bp Nichol; Sheridan’s rare edition of Carolee Schneemann’s ABC – We Print Anything. Others enchant Book Club purely because of their formal qualities; there’s great affection for, even a fetishization of, die- and laser-cut holes, unusual endpapers, accordion folds. Tucked in many of Clarke’s objets are receipts and invoices. Lexier holds up a copy of Dieter Roth’s Gesammelte Werke Band 7, a thick comic book plugged full of holes and says, “This is the crme de la crme.”

A subtle current of covetous competition runs through Book Club. With almost every item, Book Club oohs and aahs – a chorus of muted human trumpets – and scribbles down titles or, as Sullivan does with his iPhone, scans pages. By the time all the books have circulated, the table, completely covered in a confusing clutter, could itself be a kind of installation piece. When people start to gather up their own books, Lexier realizes he’s taken something of Clarke’s. He grins again: “The best part of Book Club is you come home with an extra book. You might have lost one, but…”

 

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