Strong misreadings: Tom Phillips at Flowers Gallery

Pages from a Humument-Install2

Installation view of “Pages from a Humument” at Flowers Gallery

A row of one hundred unadorned pages from an old book entitled “A Human Document.” Below, a row of pages similarly numbered but with words inked out or colored over to tell a new story with old words. Beneath those two rows, another row of the exact same pages but manipulated with drawings, collages, and a different selection of words. On view at Flowers Gallery, the exhibition “Pages from A Humument” offers the viewer both the starting point of this body of work and its reinvention twice over. British artist Tom Phillips took the Victorian novel “A Human Document” as the basis for an alternate narrative first exhibited in 1973 (the middle row). He returned to the original pages for another alternate reading, debuting in 2012 (the bottom row). Different strings of words are selected each time. Following the thread of them down the page the viewer finds poetry rather than straightforward narrative. This kind of strong misreading does not suggest an anxiety of influence, but rather a decided optimism about the depths to which a text can be mined for meaning: the birth of a reader.


Recently I wrote about works by Robert Seydel that are similarly text-based. Seydel used old pages from albums and books as fodder for an inventive merging of text and image bound together by a loose fictional persona as narrator. Here in Phillips work, no clear authorial hand, even fictional, appears. There are recurrent concerns about art–also seen in Seydel’s work–and certain words such as “toge” seem to have specific meaning, cropping up again again across unrelated pages. Unfortunately, unlike the show of Seydel’s work, Phillips’ pages on view at Flowers are primarily high-quality photocopies, losing some of the intimacy and surface interest that the hand-inked pages would have.


“A Humument,” which combines “human” and “document” from the original book’s title, suggests other trains of thought; the artist said in a recent interview:

There are little echoes within. It’s a funny little word. Human and humument and exhumed, earth humus, and all that. That pleases me because it’s not fixed.

Monument also comes to mind, as working and reworking the pages has become the artist’s life work, something he has returned to time and time again since his initial selection of the book in 1966 and now, at age 78, continues to develop.

Installation view of Pages from a Humument at Flowers Gallery

Installation view of “Pages from a Humument” at Flowers Gallery

The birth of the reader, ala Barthes, suggest the need for a strong, able reader. Phillips waxes poetic and facile, but remains fragmentary, at least as far as I could tell. His suggestions for a new narrative might be pithy, funny, or romantic, but they never build to more in narrative. However, as a testament to the capacity for human invention and some beautiful colored small drawings, they are well-worth a look. “Pages from A Humument” is up for one more week, through August 29th, at Flowers Gallery in Chelsea.

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