Library of Babel, Lucy Kirkman's New Show at That That, Deserves its Own Place in a Book

Categories: Visual Art

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Lucy Kirkman, First Lady, 2013. Acrylic, oil and graphite on canvas. Photograph by Bronwen Roberts.
Lucy Kirkman's solo show at That That, a hard-to-find new art space in a Deep Ellum building that you've passed a million times (think of the Finley Shirts window on Main Street), is rooted in the Jorge Luis Borges short story "Library of Babel," 10 dense and challenging pages of text lacking a defined narrative structure. It's had many English language interpretations from the original Spanish, but this exhibition is Kirkman's loose, accessible visual translation.

First, a summary of the story, borrowed from Wikipedia:

See also:
The rest of Betsy Lewis' visual arts criticism for the Dallas Observer.

Borges's narrator describes how his universe consists of an enormous expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival -- and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (23 letters, spaces and punctuation marks). Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The library must contain all useful information, predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Despite -- indeed, because of -- this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. This leads some librarians to superstitions and cult-like behaviour, such as the "Purifiers", who arbitrarily destroy books they deem nonsense as they scour through the library seeking the "Crimson Hexagon" and its illustrated, magical books. Another is the belief that since all books exist in the library, somewhere one of the books must be a perfect index of the library's contents; some even believe that a messianic figure known as the "Man of the Book" has read it, and they travel through the library seeking him.

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Lucy Kirkman, Skulls, 2013. Oil and graphite on canvas. Photograph by Bronwen Roberts.
I read the story a few days before seeing the exhibition. I was expecting Kirkman's work to be representational of octagons and number sequences and monkish librarians. Not so.

She has taken Borges' ideas, not the story's concrete symbols, as proposals for her paintings, floating in art historical references and her own secret histories. If it sounds very lofty and alienating, believe me, it isn't. Kirkman's paintings aren't hotdogging for intellectual supremacy over the viewer. They're simple.

Presenting three paintings as one work, she paints the same content three times over, incurring random variations. Two are the same size; the third is slightly larger and mounted between its siblings. Some of these triplets are pure text, some are figurative; some are colorful, some pale or faded.

Her content comes from actual book pages, all kinds, all topics and some very old. A piece called "Skulls" hangs next to a piece called "Life of Forms" depicting crucifixion statuary ("Skulls" depicts skulls). It's intense. I felt my own tiny temporary place in a massive temporal history.

Since half of the pieces are built on text alone, I couldn't help but reflect on Kindle, and what might happen to history when books as objects will no longer outlive us, fade, take refuge in your grandmother's attic waiting for you to find them decades later and tell you who your family was before you existed. Does something happen to history when pages are digital and will not fade?

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Lucy Kirkman, Library of Babel (installation view).

The space itself brings a deeper dimension in regard to the Borges. One wall has no artwork because it is all windows, and each window pane was composed of one large rectangle with identical but smaller siblings above it. That echo of the installation structure drew my attention. While the windows separate and protect us from the outside, we can still observe it and interpret it. In the story, the infinite library speaks to the mind's structuring of the experience of reality. Kirkman does the same in her work. She was gallery-sitting when I saw the show the day after it opened, and her quiet, earnest, kind presence made me think of Borges' librarian, searching, searching, searching. I've no doubt that is exactly what she's doing with this show.

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Lucy Kirkman, Humoresque, 2013. Oil and graphite on linen. Photograph by Bronwen Roberts.

Whether you're into Borges or not, Kirkman's paintings are undoubtedly beautiful. In fact, beautiful is understatement that speaks only to the surface object. Let me put it this way: I have never purchased work from a show I was reviewing because I would find that unethical, but were I able to afford the works in this show, transactions would indeed have occurred. I could afford the $35 dollar handmade exhibition catalog, and I ordered one, ethics be damned.

Thirty years from now, when Kirkman is in her 50s, I have no doubt she will be a major figure in the art world, while I will be a demented geriatric shaking this exhibition catalog at my nursing home cohorts, just to prove I was there when Kirkman was still a young pup. I have no idea why Kirkman chose to come to Dallas two years ago when the world is as big as her talent. I hope she stays, and that we don't hold her back.

Library of Babel: New paintings by Lucy Kirkman runs through June 21st at That That in Dallas. (If you Google "That That Gallery" you will not find it.) The best source of open hours is the That That page or the exhibition's opening reception page on Facebook.



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