January 29, 2011

Lind booked up

"Rampart St." (2010), pencil and gouache on book covers by Tom Burckhardt, puts discarded books to use.

We might take the number of contemporary artists who work with books as a symptom of rising anxiety at the waning of the Age of Print.

But the bibliomaniac pieces by New York artists Richard Baker (no relation) and Tom Burckhardt at Gregory Lind join a line of book-based art that links Dada days with the assemblages of John Latham (1921-2006) and the late R.B. Kitaj's screen-print suite "In Our Time: Covers From a Small Library" (1969) and the 21st century work of San Franciscan Steve Wolfe.

Baker makes what might be described as book portraits. Each of his gouaches depicts at full-scale not merely a single book but his own well-thumbed copy of it.

Use Web pages as much as you please, they will never bear the scars of handling or of withering by time as a book does. Some people glory in this fact, but Baker represents it as a loss that only the autopsy of a specific volume can register truthfully.

Baker's images conjure facts about books lost to sight in the digital realm: how the authorship, design, content, condition and age of a certain volume characterize its owner, even if misleadingly. Before online avatars, our handheld reading matter represented us, with much subtler possibilities of disguise and expressive nuance.

Burckhardt offsets somewhat Baker's undertone of lament. He takes genuinely discarded books of little or no enduring interest, removes their hard covers, flips one over and abuts the pair to create surfaces on which to draw and paint.

Burckhardt's "Rampart St." (2010) represents well his quietly zany way of expanding on the colors and graphic information in his scavenged material.

With no pretense to specificity, his work evokes the nearly indescribable feelings that readers have about the intangible structures they encounter only in books.