KMAC Goes to the Library

Text as Material: Nina Katchadourian’s “Sorted Books”

photo by Emily Miles
photo by Emily Miles

On September 19, 2015 the museum opened a special KMAC In The Community exhibition featuring Nina Katchadourian’s Kansas Cut-Up from her ongoing “Sorted Books” project. The exhibition is located in the newly designed 40,000 square foot award-winning Southwest Regional Library building that directly serves the Shively, Pleasure Ridge Park and Valley Station areas. It is the first of three new similar libraries to be constructed in underserved neighborhoods.

KMAC initially established plans to present one of Katchadourian’s photo based projects to run concurrent with the 2015 Louisville Photo Biennial. When the idea arose to collaborate with the Louisville Free Public Library, using their beautiful new space, it provided an ideal fit for her “Sorted Books” series. It also supplied KMAC with an opportunity to create a public art exhibition featuring an internationally acclaimed contemporary artist who would typically never show in that area of town. 

photo by Emily Miles
photo by Emily Miles

Kansas Cut-Up is the newest installment of Katchadourian’s “Sorted Books” series, which began over 20 years ago while she was pursuing her MFA at the University of California, San Diego. It was during this time that she began to hone her skills at creating art that focuses on the everyday and the close observation of the finer details of everyday objects and daily activity. Her work is made in common and sometimes unlikely spaces, such as libraries and commercial airplanes.

For her “Sorted Books” projects Katchadourian works in a particular book collection, culling books from a vast range of subjects and juxtaposing them sequentially so that their spines read like a short story, visual poem, or proverbial statement. This reveals the cross-sections of subjects contained in a specific book collection and also Katchadourian’s own commentary on these subjects inflected by her unique sense of humor.

“Vampires” (2014), digital C-print from Nina Katchadourian’s “Kansas Cut-Up.” Photo: Nina Katchadourian. Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco
“Vampires” (2014), digital C-print, 12.5″ x 19″, from Nina Katchadourian’s “Kansas Cut-Up.” Photo: Nina Katchadourian. Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco

Katchadourian subverts the normal function of the book by recasting them as objects to be arranged—not in alphabetical order by author, title or subject, but according to their proper place in the artist’s own narrative clusters. The clusters created by the artist behave not just as portraits of the library from which the books originate, but also as a portrait of the library’s owner. That person’s sensibilities, preferences, fixations, inclinations and fascinations are contained within the specific titles.

“The Hospital” (2014), digital C-print from Nina Katchadourian’s “Kansas Cut-Up.” Photo: Nina Katchadourian. Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco
“The Hospital” (2014), digital C-print from Nina Katchadourian’s “Kansas Cut-Up.” Photo: Nina Katchadourian. Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco

In the case of the 23 photographs on view at the southwest branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, all the books were culled from the personal library of the American writer William S. Burroughs. Katchadourian’s title for the series, Kansas Cut-Up, refers to Lawrence, Kansas, where Burroughs spent the last sixteen years of his life, as well as to the literary cut-up technique that Burroughs popularized in the 1960s. His approach to creating abstract narratives consisted of cutting up the linear text from newspapers, books and writings from himself and his friends and resequencing the material into new and often non-linear texts.

Burroughs was inspired by the work of the experimental multi-media artist Brion Gysin, who had himself rediscovered the potency of such collage techniques from the Dadaists, a group of European avant-garde artists and poets from the 1920’s who originated the use of appropriation techniques in art, music, and literature. As she manipulates the inherent features and characteristics of the book form, Katchadourian reveals her own personal literary collage practice, as well as providing insight into the interests and literary attractions of the complicated and compelling character of William S. Burroughs.

photo by Emily Miles
photo by Emily Miles

On October 1, 2015 Katchadourian gave a public talk at the Southwest Regional Library about the history of the “Sorted Books” series and provided further details on how the Burroughs project was conceived and implemented. After spending close to a week going through about fifty boxes of books, and a handful of bookshelves, she created 26 book clusters. Among the curiosities that occupied Burroughs, titles related to guns, medical thrillers, animals, and wildlife pervaded the collection. His obsession with cats was evident by the particularly large number of books he had on the subject.

Cats (Opium for the masses)
“Cats (Opium for the masses)” (2014), digital C-print, 12.5″ x 19″, from Nina Katchadourian’s “Kansas Cut-Up.” Photo: Nina Katchadourian. Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco

Nina Katchadourian: Kansas Cut-Up is on view at the Southwest Regional Library until November 8, located at 9725 Dixie Highway.

Thinking About Art & “The Mending Project”

The first in a series of post from the Ramona Lindsey, Director of the KMAC Education Department.

What is art? Is art an object to be seen? Or is it a functional thing created with the finest workmanship? Can it be a combination of beauty and function? Or is it the sharing of ideas? This post does not answer this age old question. Instead it raises more questions.

KMAC recently closed Food Shelter Clothing, curated by Chief Curator and Executive Director Aldy Milliken. His show included Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project. The installation asked art patrons to bring in items of clothing to be mended or repaired by an artist mender. In 2009, The Mending Project debuted at the Lombard-Freid Projects (New York, NY). The New York installation resulted in long lines and hundreds of mended garments.

While KMAC’s reiteration did not draw hundreds of participants, we did bring in a faithful group of community mending volunteers. Many members of the Louisville Area Fiber and Textile Artists (LAFTA) volunteered as KMAC artist menders. During their September meeting, Kathleen Loomis, a noted textile artist, led the group in a discussion of The Mending Project experience. Kathy asked me as KMAC’s Director of Education and fellow LAFTA member to share KMAC’s perspective of the project.

Kathy described Lee Mingwei’s installation as relational aesthetics. I prefer the more relatable term participatory art. Both terms refer to the artist’s ability to create an environment where the viewers or visitors become a part of the art through an interaction or performance. Mingwei’s Mending Project created a space where two strangers shared themselves through an action (mending) and conversation (storytelling). In participatory art, the artist does not force a particular outcome but desires spontaneous, organic responses. Kathy shared with LAFTA members her disappointment in the number of garments that were mended. Actually, KMAC hoped for greater community participation. But is quantity an accurate measure of effective art?

Also during the discussion, Kathy shared entries from a communal journal kept by KMAC artist menders in which they wrote their daily thoughts after their volunteer mending shifts. Kathy started by sharing several entries, each mimicking statements similar to “No mending today!” Then she read a question left by one of the menders which read, “There may not be any mending, but what IS happening here?” Finally, Kathy quoted her response: “I think we are building a community— not with people in torn pants, but among ourselves! If you’re not mending, would you add some stitches to my swatch and make collaborative art?”

Proudly, she showed us a beautiful piece of fabric carefully embroidered using the colorful thread Lee Mingwei selected for his installation. K_Loomis_GroupArt

Her readings compelled me to wonder, “What is effective art?” Does effective art challenge people to push beyond constraints? Does it prompt new questions? Does it provoke creativity? If the answer is yes, then I believe The Mending Project is an example of effective contemporary art. It allowed a community of textile artists using traditional hand stitching processes to engage with the community. The menders’ journal and Kathy’s collaborative art are a real life display of KMAC’s slogan, “Art is the big idea, craft is the process!” You can read more about Lee Mingwei’s art at