Stranger in a Strange Land

The UA Poetry Center shows off Beata Wehr's striking artist's books

The UA Poetry Center is a bastion of language, an airy modernist building filled with books, texts and words.

So there's a certain irony in the center's current art exhibition, From Here and Far Away. Beata Wehr is displaying her handmade artist's books, and most of them have no words in them at all. Even when they do, the words can't always be read.

Take "Book 91. Certain difficulties with reading and text 2," from 2009. Of all Wehr's tomes on view, this is the most conventional. Instead of the eccentric materials found in her other books—stones sewed onto calendar pages or bits of found metal stitched onto black paper—this one has white paper pages and printed text.

But Wehr has obliterated most of the words with white paint. A few are visible here and there, but they're almost impossible to read. It's frustrating to squint through the glass exhibition case and try to make out the tiny letters on the page.

That's deliberate: The whitewash job gives a viewer a small view into the world of the immigrant, where it's demeaning not to be able to read what's in front of you, not to understand what's being said.

A native of Poland who moved to Tucson nearly two-dozen years ago, Wehr finds herself living in an in-between world, in a space neither here nor there, where cultures clash, and languages are mutually unintelligible. "Book 91" re-creates that Babel experience of cultural dislocation for viewers who've never lived as strangers in a strange land.

In her wordless books, by contrast, Wehr tries to find her place in her new landscape. "Book III. Souvenir from Rancho Linda Vista," 2012, is a fold-up accordion book, made up of eight connected pages, each with found materials from the ranch stitched carefully onto black cardboard.

One can imagine Wehr in the desert at the ranch below the Catalinas, walking step by step, marking her new home, making it hers by engaging with its castoffs. The trash that Wehr finds turns delicate in her hands. She positions each object just so on the black page, stitching each item into minimalist compositions touched by the human hand.

"Souvenir" has been opened up so you can see all of its accordion pages. A thin battered fragment of aluminum is stitched to Page 1. Page 2 has a nail and a wire, engaged in an elegant minuet. A circular wire, threaded through a medallion-like metal disc, makes up Page 5. Another wire twists off Page 6, entwined like a set of rosary beads. In the desert's detritus, a newcomer can find grace and belonging.

The viewers got lucky with the open-book "Souvenir," but as a form, artist's books can be problematic. They're usually displayed in a case, and viewers get to see only two pages at a time, as in "Book 91."

"Book 109: Short Stories (Book about drinking)," 2011, has linen pages stitched together, here and there splotched with gesso. The short story on view is intriguing, but we get to read only one page: Its wordless text is a flattened beer stein, made from a smashed real-life beer can. The beer's foamy froth is represented by five flattened beer caps, curving over the mug like a halo. This is one book I would like to read to the end.

The sculptural "Book 44: Calendar for 2001 (Carpe diem 2)" has 12 calendar pages stacked up in a pile, January (Styczen in Polish) on top, December on the bottom, a stone stitched to every day. Wehr, evidently wanting to seize every single day of 2001, sewed 365 pretty stones—pink, gray, cream—onto the 12 months. The stack turns into an appealing little sculpture, but the only month we can really read is Styczen.

Fortunately, the show also has "Pages," a book of 10 cloth pages that never were bound together. Instead, all 10 sheets hang on the wall like little paintings, each a foot square. The storyline is not at all clear, but the abstracted images are charming. Once again, Wehr has used metal discards to create graceful compositions.

On the opening page, a cascade of coppery metal circles tumbles down toward a stretch of silvery metal mesh. A raggedy rusted piece of metal suggests a mountain on Page 7. On Page 10, the grand finale, rusty pieces of metal have been turned into a primitive human figure riding in a car. These "Pages" are like ancient pictographs. They're mysterious, but somehow familiar.

In the 1990s, Wehr had a show of paintings in the old gallery now occupied by Buffalo Exchange's corporate offices. One of those paintings—an alluring yellow abstraction, pleasingly tall and narrow—remains in my memory all these years later. So while Wehr's books are painterly indeed—beautifully composed, delicately colored, tactile and layered—it's a pleasure to find that she hasn't given up pure painting: In the far northern corner of the Poetry Center, she has an array of 10 encaustic paintings, each just 8 inches square, glowing with brilliant color. Painted in the last couple of years, they radiate fire-engine red, canary yellow, midnight blue.

They're abstractions, but if you look closely, you start seeing narratives in them, the same way the books suggest stories. A black painting pierced by gold flashes turns into a city street by night. Elsewhere, a green-brown arc conjures up a mountain, a patch of rose-white, a sky. And, if I'm not mistaken, verticals in green and orange are Tucson's own saguaros.

My favorite, though, is an interior, a place of refuge painted in calming pale blues and greens, lit by streaming yellow and gold. The colors are softer than in the neighboring paintings, but just as radiant. They suggest, whether here or far away, a place the artist can call home.

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