Critics’ Picks

Tom Phillips, Humument Fragments: Bicycle (Vintage People on Photo Postcards), 2011, watercolor on book page, 3 1/8 x 3 1/8".

New York

Tom Phillips

Flowers Gallery
529 W 20th St
July 23–August 29

Tom Phillips’s approach to creating the strikingly luminous images in A Humument is by now a familiar one: He takes each page from W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document (a long-dead Victorian novel) and via collage, painting, and drawing, he turns them into voluminously embellished Concrete- or Language-inspired poems. When he happened upon the book nearly fifty years ago on a bargain rack in a London warehouse, he bet his rummaging companion that day, R. B. Kitaj, that he could turn it into “a serious long-term project.” And, indeed, with five different editions of A Humument printed and published, in addition to sundry objects and even an opera, Irma, 1969, all inspired by the artist’s transformation of the original text, it has become its own universe—endlessly generative, mysterious, and immersive.

Though color copies from different versions of A Humument frustratingly make up too much of this exhibition, twenty-six actual collages spun off from the project appear, using scores from Irma as well as tiny square- and diamond-shaped pieces that the artist refers to as “Fragments,” 2010–13. The copies tell us what the images “look like” in various permutations, but it’s in the originals where we can truly locate the weird and complex decision making that goes into the construction of every single collage (so tidy and Protestant in facture, yet numinously perverse in nature).

“She seized the gun. Shot through the air wreathes of smoke from her shining silver rifle as a rosy gold bullet with bitter ejaculation struck shooting him to sleep the big sleep,” reads one hard-boiled excerpt from an Irma score, tightly kerned and placed next to a square with a neatly burned-out center that says “bang.” Phillips’s imagery, wit, and considered sense of play call to mind the works of William Burroughs, Lewis Carroll, John Dee, or Syd Barrett, other dark and psychedelic fabulists whose imaginations have transformed our collective one for the better.