JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 black and white photographs, framed in black and alternately matted/unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the smaller front room, and the connecting hallway. The works on view are drawn from three separate series: Blackboards, Card Catalogue, and Fields. The 5 works from Blackboards and the 8 works from Card Catalogue are gelatin silver prints, made between 1994 and 1996 (Blackboards) and between 1996 and 1998 (Card Catalogue). The prints are sized roughly 20×24 (or reverse) and are available in editions of 6+2AP. The 4 prints from Fields are digital c-prints, made in 2015. These prints are sized roughly 48×40 and are available in editions of 3+2AP. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Erica Baum’s newest gallery show is a “something old, something new” pairing, bringing together bodies of work made some two decades apart. While Baum’s images of poetic folded over book pages and mysteriously isolated pictures from fanned out and yellowing paperbacks might be more familiar to many, the sets of work on view here bookend her career, giving us a glimpse of how her ideas and interests have evolved over the elapsed time in between.
Baum’s Blackboards series from the mid 1990s offers us a first glimpse of her aesthetic approach. Gestural chalk markings are cropped down to small movements that stand in for language – a scribble, a repeated wave of ghostly erasing, a crowded cluster of hash mark counting, an emphatic slashing curve. Fragments of words hover in the blackness, partially erased but still present, untethered from their context and pushed toward dissolving abstraction. Dusty clouds of white chalk remind us of the dated usefulness of the humble chalkboard, its function now largely replaced by other technologies. Even at the beginning of her career, Baum was plumbing the depths of obsolete communication, searching for ways to revisit what was found there.
Baum’s next project, Card Catalogue, from the late 1990s, moved her into the realm of printed matter, where she has remained ever since. Her images replicate the finger flipping motion of old school card catalogue browsing, where hundreds of cards whirr by in a flash and fragments of words stop and attract our attention. While topics like Cleopatra, Jackie Onassis, and myth rituals have their own freighted symbolism, it’s her solitary words and phrases from this series that pack the most punch. Irrational. Irresistible. Reason. Deja vu. On their own, rising up from the flurry of passing words and ideas, they seem to float like beacons, their abstracted messages oblique but enchanting. They both have context and are separated from it, part of an antiquated system and fighting to be free of it.
Baum’s most recent works, from the Fields series, follow her foray into paperback books, starting with reproductions of cloudy black and white skies and enlarging them to the point that they oscillate back and forth between representation and fuzzy arrays of halftone dots – depending on your proximity to the images, they either resolve or break down. She’s playing with the now familiar dichotomy of image and object that has attracted so many contemporary photographers, but doing so in the context of dated, tactile reproduction, embracing the physicality of her source material as applied to images of ephemeral skies. Perhaps we need to see more of these new works to get a better sense for where Baum is going with them, but their isolations seem less durably compelling that others she has created in recent years – the idea behind these dissolving enlargements seems more compelling than decoding the actual works themselves. They’ve taken the film still cinematic flair of The Naked Eye series and pushed in further, to the point where we lose the thread of narrative entirely.
Erica Baum has made a compelling photographic career out of mining archival materials for found poetry (in both words and pictures) and this show helps to create a map of the progression of her interlocked ideas. As many of her series and projects are ongoing, it’s clear that it takes time to wring the essence out of any one of these conceptual threads. Given that her newest series has just begun, we can expect it to continue to evolve and change as she works to find its center.
Collector’s POV: Each of the prints in this show is priced at $7000, regardless of which series the image belongs to. Baum’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.