Overview

Essay by Leah Ollman

Leah Ollman

Mesopotamian scribes, some 4,000 years ago, used reeds to write on clay tablets shaped like eggs, prisms, and animal paws. Ancient Egyptians wrote and illustrated papyrus scrolls, rolled them in linen, and sealed them in earthenware jars. It was common for Chinese scrolls to be folded into fan or accordian-style books. Medieval manuscripts were written with organic inks and illuminated with gold, hammered as thin as a butterfly wing.

Books today are gray, lifeless things in comparison. Uniform, rectangular stacks of generic paper, mechanically printed and bound in cheap, cardboard covers, they are designed to accommodate the bookstore's shelf more than the author's intention. The book's legacy of sculptural richness and textural complexity has been betrayed.

While the books of Brighton Press seem radically sensual next to the mass-produced volumes churned out by big publishing houses each year, they are actually extensions of some of the oldest and most fundamental traditions in bookmaking. Whether one-of-a-kind or printed in small editions, they are crafted individually, their materials purposefully resonant with the images and ideas within. Brighton Press books embody a peculiarly tight fusion of intentions, content, form, and design, a democratic union of words, images, and structure, sculpture and literature.

The books may be linked to tradition but never are they bound by convention. Bill Kelly, founder and co-director of the Press, speaks of a desire to "break the square." The results are intensely tactile: small aqua folios that evoke the fluid undulations of water ("Poem Made of Water"), or torn edges of a print that, like tense caresses, define the contours of the model's neck ("She Said: I Tell You It Doesn't Hurt Me"). If the books begin with the human touch in mind, so do they become fully realized only in the hands of the reader. The reader—viewer, user, or more accurately, reveling collaborator—completes each work through a rhythmic ritual of opening, uncovering, turning, and unfolding. It is a dance of sorts, a performance that cannot be passive, for in touching these pages, the reader confronts the passion of their makers.

Mallarmé once compared the typographical arrangement of a poem to a musical score, for we hear it as we read. Just as words become sounds, so too do they become images, and the images, sensations. Aspiring toward an art that engages hand, eye, and mind with equal fervor, Brighton Press encourages the components of a book to shift and share roles freely. Words and images transcend their presumed boundaries to spawn verbal sculpture, visual poetry, "syllables that are rattles that are seeds" (Octavio Paz, Convergences [San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987], p. 8), images that echo sounds, pages that embrace as they are embraced.

Brighton Press books are difficult to categorize. They belong, albeit as rebellious offshoots, to the family tree that William Morris planted in England in 1890, when he started the Kelmscott Press. Aiming to reprise the dignity of craft in an era overtaken by vulgar, anonymous, industrial production, Morris wrote, "I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty." Kelly and the Press's co-director Michele Burgess certainly value a fine product as well, but they also have a profound commitment to the exploratory process itself, the intuitive tumble into unfamiliar terrain. Questions and tangents guide them more than formulas, assumptions, and patterns as they continually push to reinvent and redefine the book. They choose artists [and writers] to work with, according to Burgess, "based on their ability to help us expand how we see."

The Press's products could just as easily be labeled "artists' books," for the privileged access they grant the reader to the maker's unmediated expression. They are intimate and immediate. They nurture a new kind of literacy, a sensual literacy beyond the direct reading of words and images. In the variety of their materials and approaches, Brighton Press books undermine assumptions about what a book is supposed to be, even as they celebrate the bookmaking tradition.

Broadly defined, books are "a collection of surfaces to receive writing for the purpose of communicating ideas" (Leila Avrin, Scribes, Script and Books [Chicago: American Library Association and London: The British Library, 1991], p. 1). But it takes two to communicate, and the creations of Brighton Press propose that a book is, fundamentally, a confluence of relationships—between text and image, type and the page, form and function, writer/artist and reader, space and time, poetry and music, prints and passion, potential and actuality.

—Leah Ollman, January 16, 1993, Brighton Press Catalog for Palomar College Retrospective Exhibition