In our current infatuation with electronic publishing and virtual imagery—a step beyond what Walter Benjamin called the age of mechanical reproduction—we sometimes forget what a precious and pleasurable thing the physical art object can be. Recently, George Billis Gallery in New York City featured a show of collages by Maureen Mullarkey that brought together word and image in a very tangible way. The raw material for this series, which the artist calls “Gutenberg Elegies,” was a cache of discarded old books. “I love books—the look, feel and weight of them,” she writes in the exhibition catalogue. What she makes of them here, however, has less to do with nostalgia than with the tradition of modernist collage, especially as practiced by artists such as Kurt Schwitters. Each of her assemblages is a formal composition, first of all, although many of these works use language, printed or cursive—Mullarkey also collects letters and other ephemera—for both graphic appeal and contextual resonance. In Natural History (2006) spines for a translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and a biography of Clarence Darrow are juxtaposed with a fragment of Latin text titled “De Creatione” and the rough, sewn, ragged-paper edges of spineless books, all neatly arranged in abstract rectangles, a visualization of a philosophical debate. In contrast, in Night Caravan (2006) book materials—cover, endpapers, pages—have been torn into bits and reassembled into a kind of landscape suggesting desert dunes against a black sky. Russian Constructivism lies in the genealogy of Bound by Time (2006), especially in the dynamic angle of a strip of binding edged with peacock-feather endpaper. This handsome little abstraction is counterpointed by an old fashioned stamp reading “S. Wreford Bookseller, Stationer. Books neatly bound.” Bound by Time is small, 6 by 4 inches, and like many of the works in the exhibition, uses the inside of a book cover as a support. A variety of small book covers, some patterned, some plain and worn, are fitted together—with a few bits of red and egg-yolk yellow—in For Everyman (2006), a 22-by18-inch Rubik’s Cube of a composition. The title comes from the motto of the beloved Everyman books, small-format classics published at a low price; here that motto is presented surrounded by art nouveau vegetation forms, so pale that it melts into the overall tonalities of the collage.
Another Everyman edition cover, this time with a striking art deco ex libris superimposed, appears in Letter to Dorothy (2006), one of the larger compositions. Other elements include an extravagantly Pre-Raphaelite siren in pale ocher and the centerpiece, a letter to a girl named Dorothy from her sister Rose, stained with peachy fruit shapes. The various textures of paper, cloth and leather, and the scuffs and fading of temporal wear, enrich the compositional elements of color and shape. Mullarkey remarks: “The same design principles apply no matter the medium. Issues of space, color, tone and texture remain. To think of collage as painting and drawing by other means is close to the heart of it.” Like quilts, collages combine purely aesthetic considerations with elements of social and personal memory. Mullarkey’s works are examples of creative repurposing, beautiful artifacts gathered from the physical history of human thought.
Maureen Mullarkey is also a widely published art critic who has written for The Nation, Commonwealth, Hudson Review and The New York Times. She is currently a critic for The New York Sun. George Billis Gallery is located at 511 West 25th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 645-2621. On the Web at www.georgebillis.com