If you were to cut out the illustrations from a dictionary, you might end up with around 3,100.
If you were to take each illustration for a given letter and print one on top of the other, they might begin to resemble a black hole, as the center thickens into a thatch-work of varied shades. As your eyes move out from the center, the lines begin to untangle into individual strands and recognizable shapes: fingerprints, the top of a Ferris wheel, the two ends of a flute.
That's just the drawing for "F" in Elizabeth Dove's exhibition, "It Started with Aardvark," a collection of 26 compound prints now on display at the Missoula Art Museum. Some letters in the dictionary had more illustrations and produced denser prints. "X" had only two; "C" had more than 380. The hours it took to print them by hand points to another of her favored themes: time. She said she hopes people see its passage in the prints as the layers accumulate like "sediment."
The original dictionary drawings were meant to be instructive. In the way she's layered them, the meaning becomes withheld, "a kind of thwarting," she said. "They were individual moments of clarity that I have compressed and made inscrutable and elusive."
The illustrations are the sort of simple line-drawings that are common on screen-prints or T-shirts, said MAM senior curator Brandon Reintjes. He said viewers can easily recognize how she's elaborated on the form.
"It's a simple printmaking technique taken to its illogical extreme," he said.
Dove recognizes that a printed dictionary is nearly a relic. Since she began using dictionaries as source material 16 years ago, they're now being usurped by the internet as a form of passing on information and knowledge.
Without directly saying so, Reintjes said he thinks the project is "about technology and it's one thing these smaller cities and communities across Montana — Missoula included — are struggling with. How do you make art in this digital age using a handmade process that uses digital elements as well?"
Dove, a University of Montana professor who teaches printmaking and photography, first began working with dictionaries not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A family member had died in an unrelated accident — both had left her "rattled" and contemplating questions of mortality and cause.
"Had I been a more religious person, maybe the Bible provides answers," she said. Instead she looked to the dictionary, specifically a 1966 Webster's New International edition she found at a thrift store.
She thought of the dictionary as a secular intellectual's book of answers and meaning, and began cutting it up as a way of moving through the entire volume. She knows that sounds a little absurd, but thought it of it as a kind of performance while trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
She cut out all the illustrations from the dictionary and hung them on the wall for "Beyond Words," an exhibition that favored one of her subjects: meaning, along with the passage of time.
She thought the presence of illustrations in the dictionary was interesting on a conceptual level. They represent instances where it was too difficult to explain an object with a minimum of words: say, a complex sail-boat design; or an Ionic column. She thought that the drawings were an admission of that "there's limits to what we can understand, even though the search for meaning is what this whole thing is about. Trying to figure things out, but also acknowledging that there's some things that will always be beyond comprehension."
She saved the illustrations and built on them for "Aardvark," an undertaking that lasted two years.
The process of producing the prints on her own was time-consuming. She produced each of the prints herself for a total of eight complete sets of the alphabet.
Unlike painters, printmakers can make make as many copies as they'd like. An additive process like Dove's isn't forgiving though: She could screenprint 300 layers, but if the 301st is smudged, she would have to start over.
Dove also is aware that the project is austere in appearance compared to its conceptual weight — she's made vibrantly colored prints and photographs in the past. For these pieces, she removed her personal mark-making, the "hand of the artist" that viewers often look for in a piece of art, she said.
"The beauty is in the process of it maybe more so than the outcome," she said.
Dove has shown the pieces in New Zealand. The New York Public Library bought a set for its collection of historical and contemporary prints, a home for them that she finds especially appropriate. In the coming years, "Aardvark" will travel the state through the Montana Art Gallery Directors Association.
Her next project isn't abandoning dictionaries, but using them as a bridge into digital systems of organizing and sharing information. The metaphors she's employed don't quite transfer to the subject of the internet. She decided upon the pixel, the root building block of images online. She's reducing photographs to 256 individual squares of color and printing them on dictionary pages. She thinks of it as a kind of "hyper-reduction" that illuminates the underlying systems that drive the world of online information.
"What I'm not going to abandon, what will remain, is this search for meaning. How we portray, convey, communicate, learn," she said. "That has been consistent."