Maureen Mullarkey’s recent show at Kouros Gallery in New York City was built on a paradox: the enduring power of the physical book in an era of disembodied information. Two other artists reviewed a while ago in these pages, Ephraim Rubenstein and Paul Béliveau, are painters who take books as their principal subject matter—not richly illuminated texts from the medieval scriptorum or lavish artists’ books, but common, mass-produced volumes. Mullarkey takes this nostalgic bibliophilia, perhaps a new manifestation of the pleasure of ruins, a step further in her book cover collages. Gathered together under the exhibition title “Gutenberg Elegies,” these beautifully composed arrangements of broken and frayed boards, spines and endpapers evoke the half-millennium of civilization since the revolution of movable type printing. There is nothing grandiloquent, however, about these small works, many mounted on octavo-size boards. These are cultural meditations on a chamber-music scale and, even more importantly, refined explorations of texture and form. And because the printed word has long coexisted with the penmanship of the human hand, Mullarkey incorporates fragments of letters and ledgers into her compositions, making her collages not just autonomous works of art but also conversations with past readers and writers.
Collage is a composite art form and—leaving aside the cyber-image manipulations of Photoshop—frequently rooted in the physical detritus of society. Twentieth-century artists embraced magpie constructs as a way of exploring the rhythms and disjunctions of modernity. The results could move toward sculpture and installation, as in Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines,” or play with the conventions of two-dimensionality, as in the elegant little compositions of Kurt Schwitters (1887–1984). A good collage makes a strong initial impact; layers of texture and content emerge with closer inspection. Well versed in the visual language of abstraction, Mullarkey anchors her materials with formal geometry. All Metaphors (2008, 8-by-5 inches) begins with a neat arrangement of rectangles in red, brown and cream. The right side is a patchwork: a crosswise chunk of soiled brown spine (Harold Lamb’s Tamerlane), strips of brown and red cloth, part of a handwritten ledger page, ink faded to sepia. A complete gold-lettered red spine, Longer English Poems, braces the left side, next to a ruffle of torn pages as feathery as an angel’s wing. The artist uncovers hidden beauties in broken books. Mourning Frankfurt (2008, 7½-by-5 inches), like All Metaphors, uses a reddish-brown book board as support and features a column of spineless paper. But the ragged paper is soiled, webbed and stiff with glue, and the only readable spine, a volume of Goethe, is spotted and ripped. The palette is restricted: only a touch of red and old-fashioned greenish patterned endpapers to relieve the somber browns. The title suggests not only the wealth of German literature and the sorrows of twentieth-century history but also the industry-important Frankfurt Book Fair, where the buzz this year was about e-books.
One of the delights of reading collages of the past is uncovering bits of ephemera, the bus tickets and news clippings Schwitters incorporates, for example. Mullarkey’s Measure of Another Day (2008, 10¼-by-7¼ inches) includes the old anthology warhorse Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, John B. Watson’s Behaviorism and a yellowed label for something called Bomba the Jungle Boy in the Swamp of Death. These attic-leavings are astutely reconfigured in a rhythmic pattern of verticals and horizontals. Days of Ash (2008, 11½-by-6¼ inches) is all verticals and horizontals, compacted ribbons of black, brown and orange with only a few words legible: “grief” in type, an emphatic “THE” and, in the lower left-hand corner, Volume XX of some encyclopedia or dictionary, “scar-smit.” The 6¾-inch-square Mapping Mind (2008) is a solid abstraction; the rectangles and squares of worn cloth, with their oddly painterly textures, lock into a lively geometric counterpoint. Words—“Saunders,” “London,” The Spectator—register mostly as faded-gold patterns. Three segments of a map, perhaps from an atlas, add lightness. The painterliness of these works is emphasized by the artist’s sensitivity to surfaces. Mullarkey calls attention to the visual artist’s familiar grounds, cloth and paper. The pre-existing colors, signs of wear and texts provide an inchoate palette and design elements.
Ancient of Days (2009, 14-by-11 inches) keeps the components relatively intact, with blank areas of gray, blue and brown. Touches of strategically placed red enliven the palette, and a passage of sepia gestural work, an old note in a florid hand, seems to justify the spine title on the upper left: A Sentimental Journey. The possible variations seem inexhaustible. One way Mullarkey could change up the enterprise is by shifting the four-square alignment of most of her works. Déjà Vu (2008, 6¾-by-4 inches) introduces free-floating diagonals to good effect. In this Constructivist miniature, a bit of fat spine, Volume VI of some otherwise unidentified set, is neatly vertical. But it sits on a pile of diagonal fragments: sheet music, bits of checkerboard, a big “U” with a curvy gold flourish. A black oval and an irregular strip of red are playful touches. Everything materializes against a faded brown marbleized board. In his Areopagita, John Milton wrote: “Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are.” For Maureen Mullarkey, that observation is true not only for the ideas contained in books but also for the physical objects themselves. Kouros Gallery, 23 East 73rd Street, New York, New York 10021. Telephone (212) 288-5888. On the web at www.kourosgallery.com