Cara Barer’s photographs, on view at Klompching Gallery through February 27, are so appealing and delicately wrought that any questions they raise, about the fate of books and the ephemerality of the printed word, for example, only percolate gradually to the surface. Barer, a Houston-based sculptor and photographer, searches out abandoned and discarded books and transforms them by curling and crumpling the pages, and occasionally dying or painting their edges. She then photographs the sculptures, which can resemble flowers, butterflies, or mandalas, in the center of a flat black background, so that they appear to have emerged out of the ether.
The series started a number of years ago when Barer came across a sodden (and now nearly obsolete) Yellow Pages lying in the street, but it feels like a particularly timely subject, given the general unease about the place of literature and publishing in our contemporary, digitized society. A number of other contemporary artists have engaged with this subject as well. In The Weight of Knowledge, 2014, Simon Brown photographed piles of discarded books, lending them a material heft and weight but also a sense of nostalgia. In her Crystalized Books series, Alexis Arnold took old books and magazines and transformed them into geologic sculptures coated in crystals, turning them into artifacts rather than functional objects. What the books have gained in becoming aesthetic objects, they have lost in usefulness.
Similarly, in Barer’s carefully manipulated works, the content on the page may or may not matter. In Paris, 2015, and Iditarod Trail, 2015, for example, she used maps as her material. The tightly curled pages suggest the tubular shapes of old-fashioned, rolled-up maps, but her sculptures also render the maps tantalizingly unreadable. When Siri can alert us to every turn on our route, perhaps maps are going the way of sextants and other archaic navigational tools. The books and maps Barer uses may have outlived their usefulness as vehicles of knowledge, but she has given them a second, possibly more whimsical life.