It's been said that he who destroys a good book kills reason itself. But artist Robert The has his own reasons for vandalizing old books and carving them into gun shapes. "I feel like I'm resuscitating a piece of debris," says The, who gets the books from Dumpsters, thrift shops, and garage sales. "There's a certain aura something gets when it's considered refuse."
The's even been known to turn the Good Book into a gun, though these pieces are more expensive. "It's hard to find Gideon Bibles," he says. "You have to dig around for them or buy them. And since there's a 10 percent chance that the Christian faith is correct, I'm taking an eternal-damnation commission."
A California native and current Woodridge resident, the 35-year-old The made his first book gun six years ago. Searching for what he calls "the direct fusion of word and form," he started cutting letters out of hardback books. While spelling the word REAL, he noticed the letter L resembled a gun. He crafted a few pieces and began hawking them on the streets of New York's Lower East Side. They were a hit, so he made some more.
He says he'll use just about any kind of hardcover book--textbooks, cookbooks, Time-Life Books, crime novels, old encyclopedias. He fashions them into scale models of Glocks, Lugers, Smith & Wesson revolvers, machine guns, and automatics. Books are selected mostly for the strength of their bindings, though "some titles have resonance," he says. Lately The's been defiling Rush Limbaugh's books, which have become readily available in thrift stores. "It's funner than the Bible." But he does have his principles. "I won't do books about hypnotism, the occult, biographies of John Ford...they're too valuable."
The is reluctant to betray his trade secrets, saying only that he uses a power saw. "Paper is harder to cut than wood," he says. "I must go through thousands of blades a year." Bindings remain intact to form the barrel of each gun, so you can still flip through pages. Cutting into books has taught The a lot about how they're put together. Books from the 1960s are of better quality than those produced in the 1980s, he says, "but there seems to be a resurgence in bookbinding right now."
The has exhibited his book guns in galleries in New York and San Francisco, and they've been collected by some museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. His guns sell in museum gift shops too. "I want people to have a choice other than Frida Kahlo books and magnetic poetry. It's a real, handmade piece of art." The MCA bookstore sells his guns, but the museum doesn't have any in its collection of artists' books, the largest in the country. "They're right under their noses," he complains.
The says he never expected his books to become best-sellers. But each year he cranks out hundreds of pieces--every one is different--and that keeps them relatively inexpensive (generally between $30 and $50).
The owns up to their sensational aspect. "They're like a pickup line at a bar to get someone's attention, but hopefully people will get to a deeper level. There are a lot of weird synchronicities in the way the words are cut up, a lot of weird sexual references. Today any kind of visual art has to compete with TV, Seinfeld, Windows 95. You really have to shout. That's a sad comment, but it's true."
He still gets complaints. Last summer the MCA fielded a few objections from delegates to the Democratic National Convention. He says the majority of complaints come from leftists. "But the guns are 100 percent recycled, relatively nontoxic, and they won't fire accidentally," he says defensively. "They're as PC as you can get."
Seventy of Robert The's book guns are included in "The Gun Show," a group exhibit of weapons-related artwork at the Aron Packer Gallery, 1579 N. Milwaukee (suite 205). It closes tomorrow, May 17. Hours are noon to 6 Friday and noon to 5 Saturday. Call 773-862-5040 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of "The Bible" and Robert The by Nathan Mandell.