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January 5th, 2013

 

(Review) Book of Ruth

The Los Angeles Review of Books

JOCELYN HEANEY

Originally published on May 20th, 2012

 

“ART BEGAN IN A DESIRE for disguise,” writes Ruth Greisman, the “Sunday painter” and alter ego of Robert Seydel’s brilliant poetry-art creation, Book of Ruth, published last year. A photographer, artist, and professor at Hampshire College, Seydel died of heart attack at the tragically young age of 51, just before the book was published by Los Angeles-based Siglio Press.

Ruth’s story is at once the inner life of a lonely woman laid bare, and a wily series of alternate identities. It is not a linear narrative about Ruth’s life, but a chronicle of her internal creative process, in which there is no obvious correspondence between the images and words. Ruth’s collages often include pieces that recall the wood-engraved illustrations of Max Ernst’s surrealistic collage novels, Une Semaine De Bonte and La femme 100 tetes, where sequences of images are arranged by the dream logic of automatic association.

Book of Ruth is presented as a series of art works, journal entries and letters sent to the artist Joseph Cornell. It is also an homage, in the form of an imagined life, to Seydel’s real-life Aunt Ruth. I like to think Seydel wished to explore the hidden side of his aunt, to give dignity to her frustrated desires, to know more deeply her secret joys, to inhabit another consciousness in an attempt to leave a nuanced, if largely imagined, record of an ordinary woman’s life.

A painter, dreamer, visionary, and lonely bank clerk, Seydel’s Ruth is a wonderful hybrid character, who we meet through a series of short texts and her own collages. Many of those are portraits, in which early 20th century photos have the heads replaced by images of melons, rodents and crushed bottle caps, or disfigured and obscured under layers of white and red paint. Acknowledging that these images are self-portraits, portraits of her own multiple identities, she writes to her muse and love object, Joseph Cornell: “I am always a little visible behind my mask.” Her creator, Robert Seydel, remains a bit more elusive. In an obvious sense, of course, all of Ruth is Seydel. Seydel’s sense of humor appears in the form of curious moles and worms peeking at the oblivious faces in the collages, but as an alter-ego he remains harder to trace. Even the “author photograph” at the end of the book is another collage.

The Book of Ruth, Seydel’s final work, hardly feels like an elegy. It is one of those rare events in art and poetry that actually inspires the reader to write, to create, to make something, and to document and even celebrate the many seemingly insignificant things that make up a human life.

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