Two similar ideas born an ocean and a generation apart come together in a new exhibition "Life's Work: Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera" at Mass MoCA.
Based on a book format, each man's project has been in the works for years -- decades in Phillips' case -- and is still ongoing. The show illustrates how an artist can mine a single inspiration repeatedly for fresh interpretations and how that process can become a career.
British artist Tom Phillips, 76, has been working on a series of book-format variations he calls "The Humument," since 1966. Based on a Victorian novel by W.H. Mallock called "The Human Document" that he picked up at random in a junk shop in South London, the 367-page first version was published in 1973.
It has since gone through another revision and is published in a trade edition that has been revised several times available for public purchase.
The original text by Mallock and Phillips' two revisions -- numbering more than 1,000 single, framed pages -- are on view at Mass MoCA. It is the first time that all have been shown together
They illustrate how Phillips artistically blocks out and highlights words and phrases of the original text on a page to create new narratives --mainly poems -- on corresponding pages of his revised editions. Blank pages signify ones yet to be done or still in progress.
Phillips, who is a writer, composer and theatrical designer as well as an artist, said he considers the book to be a "sacred vessel" that carries the knowledge of civilization and -- like music -- offers endless opportunities for reinterpretation.
Maryland-based Johnny Carrera, 44, also started with a random book find, an 1898 Webster's International Dictionary he found under his grandfather's favorite reading chair in 1995. In it, he discovered an 80-page section of black-and-white line illustrations for words in the book.
It led him to want to test out a theory of creativity that all new ideas are based on recombinations of old ones. Over the past dozen years, using the original wood blocks he managed to locate that were used in printing the 1898 Webster's, he has created his own "Pictorial Webster's Dictionary in an original and trade editions.
In it, he recombines the Webster illustrations of animals and mechanical devices with similar line drawings of his own and arranges them in numbered bound pages as a pictorial lexicon, but with a new visual subtext.
He groups them in themes or has animals looking at each other or at objects. It is up to the viewer, he says, to create narratives around these relationships.
For the show, Carrera took the concept further, projecting and merging drawings on a wall and in framed prints.
He also amped the drawings up in size and printed them on boat sails that hang in the gallery, giving a viewer the sense of actually entering into the book's pages.
It is an experiment made possible, he said, by the sheer size of Mass MoCA's gallery spaces.
Neither artist knew the other before Mass MoCA curator Denise Markonish contacted them for the show five years ago.
She, herself, knew and had worked with Carrera, when he lived in the Boston area, but said she was unaware of Philips' work until Troy artist Michael Oatman mentioned his "Humument" to her.
Particularly drawn to artists who develop work by revisiting an idea over long periods of time, Markonish says the show suggests something not only about the creative process, but also about books, images and the nature of time.
To reach Charles Bonenti:
or (413) 496-6211.
On Twitter: @BE_Lifestyles