Design, India travel take center stage in exhibit at Craft Alliance

‘Kamini’  presents selections from the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva, translated from Sanskrit by Andrew Schelling, with photo-illustrations by Ken Botnick. Kamini was selected by the American Institute of Graphic Arts for its annual 50 Books/50 Covers exhibition of the 50 best designed books of the year.

By Sarah Weinman, Special to the Jewish Light

If you’re interested in typography, letterpress, 20th-century design, contemporary travel to India, or bookbinding – or all of the above – local Jewish artist Ken Botnick’s solo exhibition “Typographies,” at Craft Alliance in the Delmar Loop, has plenty to attract you.

This show is a wonderful sampling of the artist’s myriad ideas and talents.  “A lot of objects here come from concepts which have been in Ken’s mind for several years,” says curator Stefanie Kirkland, Director of Exhibitions.  (Botnick is abroad on sabbatical and couldn’t be reached for an interview.)

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The artwork on display exemplifies Botnick’s interest in several themes: typography, the style and appearance of printed matter; letterpress, a method of printing with raised surfaces such as woodblock or linoleum; the love of words and the page; and everything with regard to visiting India.

Botnick combines printmaking with his travels in the series “After Some Time,” a set of six letterpress and inkjet prints.  He collaborated on this project with his friend Diana Guerrero-Maciá, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  The two artists created the prints during a visit to India.

Each uniquely designed print features an English phrase which Botnick and Guerrero-Maciá saw in the country.  In a temple to Krishna, a sign announced, “Photograph only the Lord,” requesting that tourists not photograph the worshippers.  (Tourists were allowed to take pictures of the temple.)  “Spoken English Personality Development” was a sign outside a call center, which trained Indian employees in American mannerisms.  The title of this series was inspired by a conversation between Botnick and locals at a train station.  “When is the next train?” he inquired.  They answered, “After some time.”

This laid-back response stands in sharp contrast to the story behind the series of framed photographs titled “The Road at Night.”  Botnick’s driver chauffeured him at breakneck speed through an Indian city, slowing down only when the artist leaned out the car window to take pictures.  The blurry images of buildings and pedestrians convey a rapidly modernizing culture.  Botnick bound an identical set of photographs in a book, bringing together laser-printing and letterpress.

For Botnick, books hold a lot of meaning.  “They’re intimate, and readers can control the pace of reading,” says Kirkland.  “Ken sees the page as a meeting place for ideas.”  The artist explores some of these in several one-of-a-kind books in the show.

Botnick uses materials and the placement of items to evoke certain sensibilities in the viewer.  “Export Quality” is a 16”-tall book bound with a burlap bag which the artist purchased from a T-shirt seller in India.  The piece’s title comes from words on the bag, and the book contains two-dimensional items from Botnick’s travels, like a scrapbook.  Indeed, the entire piece feels like a souvenir.

The artist constructed “Imperiled New York” from books bound in old maps of Manhattan and assembled into a tower.  Its title refers to all of the disasters that affected New York from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy.  (The piece sits on Botnick’s “AH HA” table, whose metal legs spell AH on one side and HA on the other.)

When asked how the concept for such a complex exhibition came about, Kirkland replies, “Five years ago Ken curated a show at Craft Alliance called ‘Bound Visions,’ so I developed a relationship with him at that time.  We started talking about creating a solo show of his work.  He’d never had a solo show in St. Louis.  Craft Alliance hadn’t held a book exhibition in a while, and I was excited to see the art of bookmaking celebrated again.”

Kirkland visited Botnick’s studio a number of times to discuss which pieces to include in the show and how they would fit in the gallery space.  Curator and artist both wanted the show to be more intimate and minimal, and to give more space to the objects.

“I hope that visitors appreciate Ken’s skill set and get a feel for his love of typography and the word, and his love for the object,” Kirkland continues.  “I was honored that he recognized the importance of craft and that he wanted a show here.  Craft Alliance was excited to see Ken’s work in the space and to announce him as an artist.”

In addition to the main exhibition, a small complementary show titled “The Blank Page” is up in the David and Jacqueline Charak Gallery at Craft Alliance.  

This small show features handmade blank books of all sizes and materials created by local letterpress artists whom Botnick either trained as printmakers or taught as students.  All of the books are for sale.

Botnick lives in the DeBaliviere neighborhood and is married with two daughters.  A master bookbinder and printmaker, he has taught at Washington University for 14 years and also runs the Kranzberg Book Center at the university.