Erica Baum, A Long Dress @Bureau

JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the entry space, and the connecting hallway. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2018. The prints are sized roughly 16×14 to 16×17 inches (in editions of 6+2AP) or 36×32 to 36×43 inches (in editions of 4+2AP). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While it’s seems patently obvious that writers and essayists will have a strong and enduring affinity for words, it’s much more unusual for a photographer to build an artistic career around them. Choosing to make images of and about words is by definition an indirect reflection of someone else’s original creative activity. Photography of writing is, in a sense, a meta reinterpretation of one medium in another, where words are alternately graphic elements and physically printed (or drawn, written, or painted) objects, as well as carriers of ideas, emotions, and meaning. It takes certain kind of conceptual thinking to consistently find original visual discoveries inside this tight nest, and this is exactly what Erica Baum has been doing for more than two decades.

Over the years, Baum’s pictures have smartly interrogated many facets of words and printing. She has made photographs of the gestural echoes found on erased blackboards and the isolated category words found on the tabs of card catalogs. She has shown us the geometric precision and unlikely poetry in the dog eared triangular folds of yellowed paperbacks. She has explored the vertical layering that can be created when books are examined on edge, their ruffled pages becoming juxtaposed strips of fragmented imagery. And she has revelled in the details of printed materials of all kinds, encouraging up-close halftone dots and rich tactile paper stocks to become subjects all their own.

Her newest works, from the series Patterns, continue along this path, using twentieth century sewing pattern books as her source material. These illustrated booklets are filled with detailed instructions, paper templates, and complex step-by-step diagrams, all designed to help the home sewer to construct various garments and projects. Between their straightforward directive commands (in bold lettering), their geometric forms, and their crisp graphic design, these pattern books make a surprisingly perfect subject for Baum’s controlled aesthetic experiments.

The largest works on view recall Baum’s earlier series The Naked Eye, where paperbacks were feathered open to find slices of imagery among the insistent verticals of the page edges. In this case, the content of the pattern books has been arranged into strict overlapping layers, with central images surrounded by just visible strips and edges from other pages. Outlined diagrams of a female figure, a cow (that looks like a teddy bear), and various bunnies show us how all the pieces are supposed to fit together, while the side strips bookend the pictures with tangential connections, possible options, fragmented words, and abstract repetitions. One bunny head diagram offers the somewhat mystical instruction “Turn head right side out” which seems like a fitting allusion to the mind bending rethinking going on in Baum’s photographs.

Baum’s smaller works use tighter cropping and the semi-transparency of the underlying paper to isolate found arrangements. One selection of images plays with green and red printing, the line fragments creating abstract Xes, plaids, intersections, and echoes, using the on top and underneath printing to intermingle the elements. Another sticks with monochrome black printing (the underside printing appearing in misty grey), the diagrams filled with curves, arrows, arrays of arcs and dots, and other inexplicable geometric pathways. In both sets, single isolated word or phrases (sometimes in multiple languages) punctuate the designs. Imperatives and descriptors like “hem allowed”, “underarm”, and “chemise” are relatively self explanatory, while other words (“eye”, “ease”, and “place” for example) offer the opportunity for more open ended interpretation. Baum also uses the yellowing paper, and in a few cases, the seemingly rough texture of its tiny cotton fibers, as yet another compositional feature. These smaller pictures are tightly controlled, each one using exacting photographic precision to create something simple and elemental.

Seen as an entire body of work, Baum’s Patterns thrums with a sense of mature sophistication. Each image offers formal choices and options, her pairings and juxtapositions creating fluidity and movement from the piece parts of available graphic design. These are photographs crafted with patient intelligence and the persistent aggregation of previous artistic learnings. They feel far richer and more complex than their humble subject matter might normally imply, representing another consistent step forward for a photographer who deserves more attention.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $6000 or $11000, based on size. Baum’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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