Purcell's `Bookworm' catches elements at work

Critic's Corner//Art

Photographer finds beauty in destruction

Art Column

October 18, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Rosamond Purcell arrived on the photography scene in Boston in the mid-1970s with exquisitely observed still lifes made with a black-and-white Polaroid camera.

Her recent works, now on view at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery in Washington, are about a particular kind of creative destruction - that which occurs when the present willy-nilly overwhelms the past. Hers is a sad and serious vision that seems imbued with nostalgia and regret.

The exhibition is drawn from Purcell's most recent publication, Bookworm (2006), a retrospective volume of 125 of the artist's signature images of found objects and decaying books. Many of the ink-jet color photographs in the show depict books that have been eaten by termites, burrowed into by mice, singed by fire or waterlogged by flood.

Whatever knowledge or wisdom these texts might once have contained has been altered nearly beyond recognition by the ravages of time. What remains are only dry, empty husks enveloping a void in which the very possibility of meaning has literally fallen apart.

Though a New Englander, Purcell views the world in a manner resembling that of Southern photographer Clarence John Laughlin whose images of decrepit plantation houses reflect deep nostalgia. That sensibility - seen in the work of Southern writers as diverse as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Penn Warren and William Faulkner - involves a tragic vision of the past and of a fatally flawed present born of that past. It often presumes a prior state of happiness and contentment that, while it may never have existed in reality, offers a comforting illusion of belonging denied by the complexity and change of the modern world.

Purcell's Dante's Inferno, for example, depicts the charred pages of a copy of the Italian classic that the artist found on a street in Boston after a fire. The flame-like patterns of the burned paper mimic the hell fires described on its pages, though the words are no longer legible. It is an image of a vanished world of knowledge and learning of which only the ashes remain.

Purcell's images of decayed books and disintegrating meanings are couched in the visual language of 20th-century American and European surrealism. But what they reflect are the 21st-century realities stemming from the transformation of our present text-based, industrial civilization into the image-based, post-industrial civilzation. This momentous transformation, which is occurring almost without our being aware of it, is fundamentally altering the way we process information and act on it.

Purcell's photographs mirror that change, but cannot explain it except by implication: The books she shows us are dead things, along with much of the knowledge they once contained. In their place we have images full of vitality and sensuous allure, but aside from announcing the old order's demise, what they can tell us remains largely a mystery.

Purcell's subtle images remind us that though the artist can make us aware the ground is shifting beneath our feet, no art can really tell us where our steps are leading.

Rosamond Purcell: Bookworm runs through Oct. 28 at Kathleen Ewing Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Ave, N.W. in Washington. Call 202-328-0955 or kathleenewinggallery.com.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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