“What freedoms can an alter ego afford an artist?”

News Section, Reviews

January 5th, 2013


(Review) Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel

The Brooklyn Rail

Reading Double: Book of Ruth


Original published October, 2011


What freedoms can an alter ego afford an artist? What truths? In Book of Ruth, Robert Seydel assumes the identity of his fictitious aunt, Ruth Greisman, a forgotten collagist. Made by Seydel through the foil of “another,” Book of Ruth is a paean to the inner life and how we might express it through poetry, through the subliminal medium of collage, and across gender.

The author invites us into his subject’s imaginarium, represented as a ready-made body of color reproductions of collages and poems. Seydel pretends Book of Ruth is a recently excavated trove of artwork and personal writings culled from the Smithsonian Museum and a family garage. The story goes that Ruth lived in Queens with her brother Saul, never married, and was Jewish. Ruth worked at the bank and made art for herself, to share with intimates, no one else. Ruth was friends with Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp. But Ruth is ultimately Seydel, and there is something tender about the author and artist — a man who recently suffered an untimely death at 50 years old — inhabiting a maternal relative figure, a middle-aged woman from the middle of the 20th century. Claiming her as his kin, and by way of kinship accessing his own creative reserves, Seydel defers to Ruth’s creative abundance.

Seydel submerges in the manuscript and collage to the point where Ruth is more real than he. Through these collages, indeed, through the Surrealist practice of collage itself, Seydel compellingly explores the limits of authorship, kinship, and interiority. Collage is, through the use of found material, a simulation of the imagined subconscious. Along the threshold between external material and inner life, Ruth’s art lets Seydel manifest his own. “I follow a line that isn’t mine,” rhymes Ruth, and this pronouncement is true for Seydel, who both leads and follows in the forgery of the oeuvre. It is a game of masking and revealing, pretending and becoming. Occasionally, Seydel seems to peek through his female alter ego: “You’re always a wandering possibility” Ruth muses; “I’ll invent who I am, against what is”; and elsewhere, “I may not be thinking of me now.”

Seydel’s project asks how we would express ourselves differently through the other gender. His projection into Ruth is more empathically transvestite than narcissistic; we don’t primarily experience her as unreal or as solely part of the author’s imaginary order. That Marcel Duchamp is enfolded as a fugitive character in Ruth’s journals is a cue to Seydel’s own transversal representation, namely Duchamp’s alter ego Rrose Selavy. The homage to artistic influence registers, but unlike Duchamp, Seydel’s relationship to the feminine alter ego is not immediately seen as a male masquerade or prankish. It is as though Seydel has submerged himself into Ruth to a point of near indiscernibility in his crossing of visual art and poetry, male and female, past and present. This would seem to embody rather than ape a feminist art and literature. And it is this near total seamlessness that blurs the bounds between author and subject, real and unreal, primary and secondary roles, master and mastered. . . .

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