New York

Erica Baum

D'Amelio Terras

IN HER LATEST SHOW, Erica Baum's approach is almost absurdly simple: She photographs printed words. But the pictures she makes of/with them are enlivened by a sense of linguistic play subtler and more sophisticated than that demonstrated by most entries in the broad category of “text-based art.” Baum's contemplations of verbal signification and the visual conditions of reading tease moments of poetry from sober systems of knowledge classification. Similar concerns informed her earlier photographs of card catalogues; the new work constitutes a second chapter, or completes a diptych, with these endeavors.

Hung salon style in plain white frames, the large black-and-white digital prints in Baum's recent show depicted excerpts from the subject indexes of books: uniformly scaled and cropped, the twenty-seven individual piece felt like a series. Isolated in a sea of white space were a few lines of text—sometimes just a single word—followed by numbers indicating pages: “Ooze, deep-sea, 305.” Around these characters floated whatever abstract detritus the processes of copying and enlargement generated: black lines and dots, grids and smudges. The work's appeal derived from the delicate-yet-deadpan mode in which the evocative snippets of language were physicalized as art.

Page after page of black type on white paper is, formally, the structure of a book, and the installation's page-based format drew attention to minute variations in typography that would not ordinarily be noted by a reader scanning the index for data before turning to the body of the text. By reducing that body to an absence, the photographs elevated the unglamorous index—quiet servant of informational riches located elsewhere—to center stage. Simultaneously, however, they equated the “meaningful” markmaking of the entries with the incidental blobs and patterns that surrounded them. Baum's conceptual jokes—the framework is the content, linguistic representation is inherently random—were inextricably allied with their formal expression. Where does reading stop and looking begin?

In Baum's earlier work, the catalogue headings were anchored in a recognizable space by the horizontal lines of cards and the recessional perspective down the narrow drawer. These index pictures, however, posit a radical distance between the rendered language and its context. Except for the faint flavors of vocabulary and typography, no trace remains of the books that housed these index fragments. Such referential freedom allows Baum to shift from the dramatic, as in Untitled (somebody), 1999 (“somebody 51, 102 / somehow 155 / someone 51, 102 / speak 44”), to the comic, as in the triptych Untitled (Things), 2000 (“Cigar, 176 / Cigar, exploding, 99”), without disrupting the overall tone. Baum is clearly aware of her role in this game of readymades—she is the ideal Barthesian reader-as-author—but her light touch keeps the lit-crit ramifications from becoming onerous. She does not have to press the point, either, since we can simply find clues in the text: philosophical ones (“Things, 13, 54, 61, 98 / arrangement and re-arrangement of, 55–6 / constitution and reconstitution of, 55–6 / in themselves, 60”) or the directly confessional (“Doubt, 146 /Dread, 60 / Dreaming, 6–7, 140 / Duchamp, Marcel, 8, 10, 122”).

Baum has hit on a compelling blend of Conceptualist documentary and literary nostalgia, but her spare selections of text could become one-liners if she does not keep inventing ways to modulate and extend her interests. Based on a comparison of these photographs with the card-catalogue work, however, the prognosis looks good. It will be interesting to read the next installment in this aleatory anthology.

Frances Richard