- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

The love of books most often refers to the ideas they contain. Another part of that love, however, hinges on the objectified, purely sensual love of the smoothness, weight and especially the fragrance of books, the older the better.

Just as the ideas behind great books often boil down to love and death, so too does the physical fetish enjoyed by book lovers, who both understand and fear the temporary life of paper.

Boston artist Rosamond Purcell’s latest reordering of her work, seen at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery, condenses years of personal collecting. First and foremost, she saves images — namely the record of an idea of how something looked — while having less commitment to the objects themselves.

“Bookworm,” the title of her exhibit and accompanying monograph, stacks up 125 photographs of decaying books and other found objects of sublime beauty. She shoots them either as faithful documentations or, later in the set, as dense but fluid collage.

Some images show books that still could be rescued despite corners surely bumped, spines shaken and end pages loose. They bring out the wistful librarian in most of us, along with the urge to wipe or brush away the dust.

“Foucault’s Pendulum” — displayed on both the exhibit’s poster and the monograph cover — is the show’s signature image. In it, the progress of termites turns two chapters of an arithmetic book into a topographic Death Valley. Every mouthful of wood pulp devoured by the bugs is rendered masterfully by Miss Purcell’s sense of sidelong light.

The cruel march of time and unfriendly weather leaves some of the books half-consumed by moss, so far gone they would crumble instantly if touched. Chewed up words become confetti; even the notes still recognizable from a musical score become a chaotic jigsaw. Some pages are charred and curling back from flame. Small birds have turned others into a home where they die and add their own bones to the pile of dust.

Then Miss Purcell departs from books for a while. A chunk of bread from World War I, carefully labeled, becomes a porous rock. When a local workshop was hollowed out by fire, she managed to salvage a telephone that had morphed into a beautifully melted marshmallow.

Halfway through, Miss Purcell drops her commitment to ideas supplied by nature and deftly begins to concentrate more and more on her own inventions. She borrows, for example, the silhouette of a great stuffed ape (which she photographed in front of a museum window) and transplants it into her own shadowy dreams.

As disturbing as the subject matter may sound, Miss Purcell proves that the contemplation of life can be beautiful and is no less so for including death, in this case that of just a few old books.

WHAT: “Rosamond Purcell: Bookworm”

WHERE: Kathleen Ewing Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202/328-0955

WHEN: Through Oct. 28. Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and by appointment

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