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Spontaneous Publicity

Spontaneous Publicity

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Through March 29 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson's Amalie Rothschild Gallery

Alex Queral's portrait

of Robert Crumb

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looks just like Robert Crumb-at least, the version of Crumb that immediately springs to this mind, which is Crumb's self-portrait in comics form: the oversize glasses, the meticulously bushy mustache, the open-mouthed near-grin, the neatly tousled hair, the Oxford shirt and V-neck sweater, all rendered in naturalistic-ish black and white. What makes Queral's "Crumb after crumb" more than an act of mimicry is the medium. Queral carved Crumb's face out of the pages of a telephone book, which he then treated with acrylic to seal and preserve it. The phone book's alphabetized taxonomy at the top of the page reads, "Crumb R."

The CV of the Baltimore-based Queral suggests he has been making these portraits since the early 2000s, and

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, at the Creative Alliance's Amalie Rothschild Gallery, is the first solo exhibition of the ongoing series in Baltimore. The show features 21 portraits, and nearly all of the faces belong to people instantly recognizable from popular culture: Crumb, Julia Roberts, Samuel Beckett, John Waters, Salvador Dali, Edgar Allan Poe, John Wayne, Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

, President Barack Obama, Lauren Bacall. The individual pieces are impressive, looking like they require an obsessive, labor-intensive kind of patience.

The phone-book pages aren't radically altered. The act of carving smears the ink a bit in places, but the pages for the most part remain intact. There's something precious about seeing these famous faces emerge from pages of instantly disposable data. They're mounted as what remains of the phone book after Queral has finished, tattered binding and all. Though phone books continue to be printed-there are stacks of them that nobody is touching in the lobby of my apartment building right now-they feel like wastes of ink and paper and, even brand-new, they seem like artifacts of another era, objects surviving from a time and place that was radically different from right now.

Perhaps that's why seeing a large number of Queral's phone-book portraits in one place is a tad unsettling. Up close they resemble a bas-relief excavated from a ruin; en masse they feel like objects manufactured to prey on wan nostalgia. There's something a tad roadside attractionesque about the portraits when seen as a group, as if they wouldn't look out of place on the shelf of a filling station-cum-breakfast spot somewhere along U.S. Route 54 from Dalhart, Texas, to Tucumcari, N.M., among the leather moccasins and frogs playing musical instruments. Quite simply, they feel dangerously like kitsch, a realization that's genuinely baffling.

It's an observation that makes me feel like a total snob, especially given the fact that the works that most draw my eyes are the photographic prints on canvas Queral includes in the exhibition. These four large-scale works-"Pilgrim," a portrait of John Wayne; "The One," of Obama; "Thinking About it (Gore Vidal);" and "Julia," of Julia Roberts-read like paintings. "Pilgrim"-the title is a nod to the alphabetical range of the telephone page, which runs from "PIL" to GRI" of the M section-features manly man Wayne in all his rugged individualism emerging from the sea of listings from some American city or county. It's a wonderfully cheeky image-the face that helped perpetuate a certain myth of American masculinity formed out of the masses to which that image was sold. These photographic prints both flatten Queral's carvings and create a higher contrast between the whites and the blacks, yielding more striking imagery. The Vidal portrait is a personal favorite: The photographic print process distorts the type and makes the resulting image look like the typography on the page conspired to create one of those

The New York Review of Books

portraits of the author.

In comparison, the carved phone books read like tchotchkes, but is that impression simply toying with an aesthetic that values something "painting-like" over, well, cut-up obsolescence found stacked in apartment-building lobbies? Clement Greenberg spent about 6,000 words exploring the political complications of Western culture's splintering into high and popular aesthetics in his 1939 essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." I'm certainly not able to riff on his argument in fewer than 1,000 words, but the certainty with which I appreciate the photographic prints and gloss over the carved phone books makes me leery of how easily the eyes can seduce the brain based on superficial impressions.

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