Thursday, February 10, 2011

Moby Dick: Fuel for Artistic Expression

Claire Illouz presents artist book "The Whiteness"
Originally published @ The Northerner

Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby Dick”, published in 1851, opens the door to many interpretations. For many it is a story about whaling, adventure, obsession, revenge or friendship, but for Claire Illouz, French printmaker and book artist, it was a great opportunity for creating art. Since Moby Dick was published, audiences have found something that they can explore within the text. For Illuz Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of The Whale”, from Moby Dick struck a chord. 

Illouz visited Northern Kentucky University on Feb 1st to talk about her current project and artist book entitled “The Whiteness’, her artistic methods, and the role of Artist Books within the art world during a lecture entitled “Why Artist Books?” Illouz has been creating artist books since 1997. History, literature, poetry, text and imagery all combine to tell a visual story in Illouz’s artwork.

Illouz’s latest project titled “The Whiteness” focuses on the idea of color or more accurately the absence of color in relation to “Moby Dick”. Through the artistic method of engraving and embossing, Illouz has created images without color. Often times the results are subtle, hard to fathom, and ultimately symbolic. 

Claire Illouz's "The Whiteness".
“In this book I let the white speak alone. I let the blank paper speak,” Illouz said.  “With a special process of printing the characters with no ink, it’s a bit uneasy for reading, but that’s exactly what I wanted. This mediation about whiteness is uneasy and extremely anguished.”

There are many theories about what the term “whiteness” in Moby Dick refers to. The most obvious explanation is the whale itself. Moby Dick, Captain Ahab’s nemesis, is a predominantly white whale. But others interpret deeper and darker meanings behind the word. For some it is about control, obsession, terror, and even a comment on humanity itself.

“With the pretext of a frightful whale hunt he goes through the very deepest problems of humanity and this is why any kind of person can read this novel, they will find something else in it,” Illouz said. “You can read that as a youngster, you can read that when you’re mature, and you can read that when your old and it’s a different book that comes out.”

NKU owns a copy of “The Whiteness”, a limited edition of 25 books published in 2008. For more information about Illouz and her body of works you can visit her website at

“Moby-Dick Art in Northern Kentucky” Exhibit
In conjunction with the lecture, “Moby-Dick Art in Northern Kentucky”, an exhibition of nationally and internationally created artworks inspired by “Moby Dick” opened the same evening. Many of the works were created by NKU students from various degree majors over the course of many years. The artworks range from ceramics, printmaking, paintings, engraving to sculpture.  One thing is clear from the work displayed; Moby Dick means something different to each artist and reader. 

Robert K. Wallace, a Regents professor in the English graduate program at NKU, organized the exhibit and lecture. For many years Wallace has been combining art with literature in his classes at NKU. 

“Moby-Dick Art in Northern Kentucky” Exhibit
“In the last 20 years people have come to understand that visual artists are among the most important commentators on Moby Dick,” Wallace said. “Ironically it’s been a lot of female artists like Claire Illouz in making this book and a number of the NKU students in this show are female too. They used to think of the book as a man’s book.”

“Moby Dick” has drawn readers from many backgrounds and continues to intrigue audiences.

“The book addresses the reader very directly and invites us to get involved with our own imagination. It also presents, as the book unfolds, reality as something that is not single or easy to understand,” Wallace said. “Its something’s that illusive and mysterious and that takes the knowledge of groups of people to understand rather than somebody dictating from on top.”

“Moby-Dick Art in Northern Kentucky” will be on display at the Schlachter Archives of the W. Frank Steely Library Feb 1 through May 1. The Schlacter Archives, located on the first floor of the Steely Library,  is open Monday through Friday  from 1-4 and by appointment.

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

Shawn, thanks for your fine article covering this event and for the pics you shared on your blog. Nice job!

Kathleen Piercefield

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