Dominic Di Mare's handmade books tell a quiet tale of obsessiveness

We start our lives looking at books with no words. Before we can read, at just a few months old, we like the feel of a book in our hands (or our mouths), enjoy flipping the pages and watching the pictures develop. If someone reads to us, more's the better, but that's almost secondary: It's the thing itself that matters.

As adults we forget what it is to appreciate a book without focusing on the words, to take pleasure in the object. Sure, the occasional photographic monograph might draw us in, but to really sit down and "read" letterless pages is rare. Mostly we expect anything between covers to tell us a story. Still, some volumes present a sequence of images with no narrative and yet lure us in, using an unspoken language to reveal something unexpected.

Last week, at the exhibition called "Book" at the Hosfelt Gallery, I encountered such a volume -- or rather, four of them. They're a series of handmade hardcovers by the local artist Dominic Di Mare. I haven't been this mesmerized by the work of a book artist in a couple of years. (And the Hosfelt knows what it has: Each piece sells for $8,500 to $12,000.) As I looked through the pieces, first with the help of a curator wearing cotton gloves, then on my own (with Di Mare's blessing), I couldn't imagine how they were made. Each page is an elaborate, delicate, compulsively detailed combination of watercolor and ink, scored with precise cutouts that reveal bits of the next page (and, often, several more thereafter), forming a new window into the future at every flip. At my second viewing I overheard another gallery visitor tell the curator that Di Mare "steals the show." She's right.

Untitled (Double Grid) by Dominic Di Mare.
Untitled (Double Grid) by Dominic Di Mare.
Untitled (Double Grid) by Dominic Di Mare.
Untitled (Double Grid) by Dominic Di Mare.

What's interesting about these titles, beyond their sheer beauty, is that they really don't tell stories: They're not autobiographical, and they don't have a hidden message. Each piece comes to Di Mare as if by magic -- unplanned, created minute by minute. In fact, they're a relatively new form for the 74-year-old: He's made only about 10 of them. He calls them an "adventure," and it's easy to see why once you learn how they come about.

Born in San Francisco, raised in Monterey, and a longtime resident of Tiburon, Di Mare (pronounced "dee MAH-ray") has been making sculptures for decades. He usually works in natural materials -- wood, bone, feathers, beads -- to create structures resembling Native American totems or fetishes that tell a deeply personal tale about his childhood, which he describes as "a little boy on a boat with his father out in the middle of the ocean." He also paints self-portraits in watercolor, revealing his bushy gray mustache, beatific smile, and profound connection to the sea.

The books are another thing altogether. He says they're about "obsessiveness," "exploration," "invention, maybe even magic."

How to describe these pieces? Let's sit down and flip through one.

Open the caramel-colored leather cover to reveal a thick, creamy page with deckled (that is, wavy) edges. Di Mare doesn't make the blank books -- most of them around 10 by 10 inches -- himself; rather, he gets them from a friend who buys them in Brazil. (They are luscious.) On the first page is a small square, roughly 4 by 4 inches, an abstract watercolor with black ink details, recalling the work of Paul Klee and Joan Miró. The colors are muted like stones washed in the ocean, the markings minute and vaguely organic, as if you're looking at a drop of water under a microscope. Something about the image implies a sense of depth, but it's not until you lift the page that you feel the shock.

After he paints, then pencils, then inks a page, Di Mare takes a surgical scalpel to it and cuts out shapes -- graphic structures like squares and triangles, amorphous forms that suggest plant or animal life -- so that every square opens, in part, onto the one after it, and maybe the one after that and the one after that, and so on. Certain pages are more cutout than painting; others have just a small hole. Through some mystical process, Di Mare creates a shifting, living, three-dimensional thing out of this inanimate object.

The books are a mystery even to him. "Have you ever seen anything like them?" he asks me on the phone from his house (our conversation is full of his questions). When I wonder where they come from, he says, "God, if we only knew."

Logical as it might seem to do so, the artist doesn't work from back to front; he doesn't begin on the last page with a fully formed idea, which he feels would be "gimmicky." Rather, he opens the first page and "takes the plunge." He asks: You know how a writer faces the blank page? "Well, I face a whole blank book." The result is pure chance. He doesn't come to the project with a concrete story in mind, never edits what he's done, won't rip out a page, and doesn't allow himself to make mistakes; if you screw up, he tells himself, "you resolve it." "I'm not fearful," he explains. The scariest part, he claims, is working with the exceedingly sharp knife.

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