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Cut-Up

Barbara Alexandra Szerlip's sculptures dismantle books to show them off

Though she's casual about her art, each piece displays an editor's careful attention to detail and a designer's painstaking eye for matching materials and creating compositions. Chinese Lantern With Dragonfliesis a large-scale sculpture that sits on an old Chinese stand; it combines a Chinese poster of a smiling woman from the 1920s pasted on top of a splayed book's pages, calligraphed Chinese text running along their tops and bottoms, copper dragonflies glued to the endpapers, and peacock feathers on the cover, to make a statement about culture and beauty that's irresistible. The Life of Nelson mixes a 1918 book on the British naval hero with a green horseback-riding ribbon, the seal of some unidentifiable nation, and Szerlip's own handwritten commentary about Nelson's exciting life story sewn into the pages for a sort of biographical/autobiographical treatise on bravery. Paris D'Autrefois ("Paris of the past") comments on history and travel by placing a disassembled old map on top of the glued-together pages of a book, a pink ribbon with French text on it holding the whole thing together. Wild Life the World Over has an alligator crawling over its cut pages and a tree growing out of the top; The Ideal Sex Life features a photograph of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. One book is an homage to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong; another is in honor of Amelia Earhart. Marguerite Duras' The Lover joins with a San Francisco Social Register from 1956 and a series of tiny white pearls. Phases of the Moon includes glow-in-the-dark models and a music box that plays "Clare de Lune." It would all be precious if it weren't so damned smart.

Japanese Throne.
James Sanders
Japanese Throne.
Barbara Alexandra Szerlip with some of her 
book sculptures.
James Sanders
Barbara Alexandra Szerlip with some of her book sculptures.

In fact, Szerlip thinks of these pieces as a sort of "vacation" from her more intellectual pursuits. If most of the time this two-time National Endowment for the Arts writing fellow is copy editing novels and nonfiction titles, writing articles on Isabel Allende for Poets & Writersand daily editorials for the Examiner, or coming up with clever ways to sell products for huge national companies, the rest of the time she moves away from "the specificity of language" to focus on manipulating color and shape. As she puts it -- in a way that would chill any librarian's heart -- "I'm just screwing around."

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