“In Retrospect”, Where the Books are the Art, at the Castle Gallery

New Rochelle, NY

Book artist Maureen Cummins says she deliberately “catch” viewers by drawing them to an image that is familiar to them. Then she surprises them with information that does not necessarily correspond to their preconceived ideas.

“It’s an ambush approach – a way to engage people when you want to explore something difficult,” said Ms Cummins, 49, of High Falls.

Castle Gallery, a three-room space tucked into the College of New Rochelle campus, doesn’t lend itself to such surprise attacks: its blond-wood floors and white walls convey an airy, open-air lightness. But since “In Retrospect,” an exhibition that will run until Nov. 4, opened early last month, artistic ambushes have been happening daily, said Katrina Rhein, the gallery’s director.

Ms Cummins, whose works include ‘Stocks and Bonds’, a series of photo wall prints showing and describing an assortment of torture devices – they appear to be both marvels of innovation and conduits of cruelty in her depictions – is not the only one responsible for them. The traveling exhibition features the work of three New York book artists; in addition to Mrs. Cummins, Nava Atlas and Ann Lovett contributed craft books and works on paper. The result is “a show unlike anything we’ve ever had before, where the work goes from very playful to very serious,” Ms Rhein said.

“People are fascinated,” she says.

Book art, according to the three artists, who live in Ulster County and took a bus trip together for a recent gallery interview, is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity. “As books and content become more and more electronic, there seems to be a great interest in the book as an object and as an object of beauty,” Ms. Atlas said. “As a result, many colleges now offer book art courses in their programs. Major colleges and universities collect artists’ books like crazy. It really exploded.

This does not mean that the public knows exactly what the art of the book is.

Ms. Lovett, an art professor who teaches a book art class at New Paltz State University, and whose work for “In Retrospect” includes “Remains,” a hand-bound book that explores how time has blurred individual experiences at three former concentration camp sites, explained: “At the most basic level, an art book is typically a collection of reproductions of paintings or photographs that were made to be paintings or photographs. But an artist’s book is the artwork. This is the design of the piece in book form. It is very different from a reproduction.

The distinction is evident throughout “In Retrospect,” so named because each of the artists draws on historical subjects to tell stories that linger in the present, Ms. Cummins said.

For example, Ms. Atlas’ “Magdalene Laundries: A Cross to Bear” features modified books, an old-fashioned washboard, and other found objects to form a wall cross. Images and text explain the Magdalene Laundries, asylums founded in Ireland in the 19th century for women cast out of society for sins such as prostitution and having children out of wedlock. The last of the facilities remained open until 1996.

“Most of my work uses humor and irony, but there was nothing funny about this one,” said Ms Atlas, 57, of New Paltz, whose works on display include painstakingly bent and gender-centric books – “Sluts & Studs” and “Tomcats & Trollops” are among her titles.

In total, the exhibition includes 27 works. Most of the pieces were made within the past decade, with a few dating back to 1997. White cotton gloves are provided near several facilities where flipping through fragile pages is encouraged.

Ms Cummins, Ms Atlas and Ms Lovett met several years ago in Ulster County. Ms. Lovett was Ms. Atlas’ thesis advisor for the graduate program she completed in 2007 at SUNY New Paltz, and “Nava brought Maureen and me together,” said Ms. Lovett, 58, also from New Paltz. Paltz. During a 2008 lunch meeting at the home of Ms. Atlas, who is also a well-known author of vegan and vegetarian cookbooks, they decided to collaborate.

“Not only were we all working on books, we were all drawing from an archive of found materials. And we were all working on subjects that can be difficult for viewers to confront, Ms Lovett said. “We were like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a show together?’ ”

“In Retrospect,” which opened in 2010 in Denver, has been on the road ever since; the College of New Rochelle is its seventh and final stop.

For Ms Lovett, also a photographer, the portability of the exhibit was a welcome change: “After a career transporting art, you start to appreciate the ability to fold things up into a nice little package and put bubble wrap around them.”

For all three performers, the show brought renewed confidence in the audience’s willingness to focus.

“Only one person at a time can look at a book and they have to really focus,” Ms Cummins said. “You can’t absorb this work walking around the gallery. It is an intimate experience between the artist and the spectator, or the reader.

Ms Atlas added: “I didn’t think people would have the patience because it requires commitment” from the reader. “But they have the patience. It was great to see.