20 Years of Horse & Buggy Press (and Friends)
Through Aug. 7
CAM Raleigh, Raleigh

In most exhibits, you’re not supposed to touch the art. But in this one, it’s practically mandatory.

In most exhibits, you’re not supposed to get too comfortable. (After all, art is pain, or at least acute self-consciousness.) But in this one, there’s inviting furniture to help you settle in. In fact, the coffee tables, chairs, cushions, lamps, end tables, and bookshelves, designed and built by the likes of Al Frega and Ben Galata, were made just for the show.

In most exhibits, you look. But in this one, you readand read and read.

As I browsed through 20 Years of Horse & Buggy Press (and Friends) at CAM Raleigh, the Superchunk classic “Slack Motherfucker” came up on the playlist. It was apt in its local terroir, if not in its messageHorse & Buggy’s Dave Wofford is anything but slack.

For the past two decades, Wofford has been hand-setting movable type and cranking paper through a press to create beautifully textured, minutely varied printed artifacts, one by one. The letters, impressed on the page, have a physicality absent from the slick surface of a magazine, let alone a liquid-crystal display. Hand-stitched spines and rough-cut leaves offer further distinction. In a run of fifty chapbooks or broadsides, no two will be exactly alike.

After learning hand printing at the Penland School of Crafts, Wofford started Horse & Buggy Press in Raleigh before moving to Durham, where he has run it out of the Bull City Arts Collaborative, which he cofounded, for the last decade.

For about four hundred years after Gutenberg, letterpress printing was basically just printing. Then industrial offset printing came along and rendered it obsolete. But not to Woffordand not to many others who seek the handmade in an age of automated productionthough he is no reflexive purist. He uses letterpress in conjunction with the latest technologies, combining metal type with polymer and digital techniques.

As much an artist as a tradesman, Wofford calls his clients collaborators, helping them create the vessel their work needs, whether they’re poets, artists, photographers, memoirists, musicians, or simply business owners in need of a special calling card.

This “mid-career retrospective,” which was on view at Cassilhaus in Chapel Hill before moving to CAM Raleigh, focuses on Wofford’s fine press books, though it also includes other artifacts, including thirty framed artworks. The show is packed but not overwhelmingyou’ll want to delve in to find the fun things hidden in every nook. Look for a framed column about Wofford’s dust-up with a towing company by the late Raleigh fixture Peter Eichenberger; I also chanced upon a random blue letter A on a shelf under Roger May’s photography book, Testify.

Since the focus is printed matter, which can contain just about anything, the exhibit teems with diverse topics, stories, and slices of local micro-history. There are memoirs, journals, and sketchbooks. There are art books filled with line drawings and engravings. There is a section on music, dominated by Wofford’s collaborations with Kenny Roby. There are poetry books by N.C. poet laureates including Kathryn Stripling Byer, whose Southern Fictions has a cover made of pulp mixed with cut-up Confederate flags.

There are photography books like Maji Moto: Dispatches from a Drought, where Courtney Fitzpatrick pairs lyrical essays with color photographs of Kenya. Wofford wrapped a hand printed cover around Indigo printed pages, a high-end digital method that makes photos glow. Each book is like a rabbit hole through which you might fall into a different discipline, a different context, a different little life.

Wofford always makes nice-looking books, but the meaning of nice-looking varies widely. Some books have pulpy covers and end pages; others are as smooth as fine red vellum. Some look like slick gallery catalogues, and some look like waterlogged leather pulled from the floor of the sea.

The last describes a 1994 book in which Wofford created the contents as well as the container, The Ability to Be Good & the Desire to Do Good, a personal collection of oddments. One page contains a Wendell Berry poem that says, “The ability to be good … is the ability to do something well. To do good work for good reasons.”

Though the exhibit is rich with layered context, some of the books have a way of slipping free from it and turning into strange avant-garde art experiences. In one stately tome with an unmarked cover, I stared at an inscrutable page that listed names beside the words “Organ Pipes,” over and over, in considerable wonder. Finally, I leafed back to the title page and discovered it was a dedication book for St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill.

Wofford has kept CAM bustling with events since hitching his buggy there in June, and there are several more before the exhibit closes with a party from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, August 7.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 28, Wofford discusses how the N.C. State College of Design and the Penland School of Crafts shaped Horse & Buggy Press, in what amounts to an informal class reunion.

And at 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 31, Wofford hosts a discussion with photographers Rob McDonald and Catherine Carter. The former has two books in the exhibit; the latter is celebrating the release of her new Horse & Buggy book, Journey, which combines photomontage with short writings by Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung.

But I also recommend visiting the exhibit during a slower time so you can treat it like the library it essentially is. Then, you should be able to settle into the comfy chair in the back corner, under a soft hanging lamp, and peruse Gail Goers’s photography book, Muse, by the light of a lava lamp on the table, the hush settling over you.

That’s also a good spot from which to contemplate what Wofford has achieved in these twenty years, what it means, and why it moves us.

In an exhibit that, among the art projects, also includes strikingly designed business cards, ads for the likes of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and Durham Critical Mass, a couple of INDY covers, and much more, we see how a life in commerce and a life in art are not mutually exclusivenot for those who do good work, for good reasons.

This article appeared in print with the headline “A Book Laid on Its Binding”