New York

Tim Maul

Betsy Senior Gallery

Old-fashioned English teachers used to talk about the romance of names, about how a poet like Milton, by listing places like Ormus and Ind, Thule and Vallombrosa, could perfume his work with whole climates of sensation—riding on the reader’s imaginings of what it might feel like to be and see where those words point. Pictures, as visual experiences in themselves, would seem less needful of this kind of gambit. But at least in part, this is how the photographs Tim Maul has taken in Dublin’s National Library work.

Sligo, Roscommon, Meath: names are full of place, of history, weather, landscape, way of life. An artist like Hamish Fulton or Richard Long might latch onto that poetry and reinforce it with an image—might combine the phrase “A Seven Day Walking Journey from Penrith to Huddersfield . . . High Street, Helvellyn, Dent,” or some such, with a handsome black-and-white of a high mountainside. Maul, though, gives us just names, as they appear on the spines of the library’s books. Whether stacked horizontally or lined up side by side, these battered old tomes are framed close up and parallel to the picture plane, which they generally fill, allowing no view through or beyond them. Even so, the viewer tends to struggle to see, in the mind’s eye, the places these volumes must document.

Munster, Dublin: the Irish Tourist Board takes words like these and plasters them on posters, combining them with photographs—as does Fulton or Long. But Maul gives us “Munster Agricultural Society Show Catalogue” and “Dublin Corporation Accounts,” county records, data, figures, registers and logs, indexes, maybe laws and bylaws. Substituting the verbal for the visual, Maul also invokes a particular quality of the verbal, a quality of stasis, and this has a doubled sharpness in a country like Ireland, its economy bolstered by vacationers seduced by its reputation not only for natural beauty but for language and literary tradition.

Perhaps in the background of Maul’s images is a body of thought about language and authority, and the way the two collaborate to act on culture. (One thinks, for example, of Brian Friel’s play Translations.) But these photographs are not without a romance of their own. Commissioned from Maul by the National Library, they must be assumed to memorialize the institution in a way that flatters it. The place is clearly a historian’s delight. And even if its books might be a little dry for the general reader, Maul faultlessly communicates the atmosphere of rooms like these, with their endless accretions of the past.

If the books themselves in some way represent authority, it’s a rather distressed and outmoded one. Literally a literary landscape, their eroded but resilient bindings, 19th century in style and probably often in actuality, have the kind of strength of character that comes from aging, and also, not incidentally, a gorgeous chromatic range, mysteriously both faded and glowing. Eluding picturesqueness by staying indoors, Maul evokes Ireland’s scene without showing its scenery, and still gives us color to die for.

David Frankel