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Book cover for Farewell My Lovely
Raymond Chandler book cover

Steve Wolfe
Untitled (Farewell, My Lovely), 1996
Oil, screenprint, modeling paste, paper and wood

In 1998 this magazine published An Ideal Syllabus, a small book for which a selection of artists, writers and curators were asked to share their ideas about what might make a perfect, or at least new and improved, reading list for current art students. If the task had been set for Steve Wolfe, we might still be waiting for the results. Wolfe makes replicas - outwardly perfect-looking but none the less unreadable replicas - of the books that have informed his development as an artist, and as a human being. Many are based on vintage editions that first appeared when he was at college in the mid-1970s, and their appearance and juxtaposition trace the mood and movement of both artist and culture at large. Thus what could have been merely a three-dimensional list of fave raves becomes a literary/sculptural diary.

Other contemporary artists have remade book covers as secular icons (Simon Morley's faux Orwells, for example), recontextualized found volumes (Carol Bove's shelved clusters of hippie-era mind manuals), or presented single pages as a kind of Concrete poetry (Matthew Higgs' collection of nominally art-related pulp frontispieces), but Wolfe's dedicated patience in pursuit of his subject is unmatched. That he has apparently gone seven years without exhibiting in order to perfect an outwardly modest project gives some measure of the singular temperament behind this library-that-isn't. And that a part of this exhibition is displayed as a set of cardboard boxes (also remade from scratch) filled with books, as if in preparation for storage or a move, hints at a sensibility accustomed to the idea that even the most precious objects tend to wind up, at some point in their lives or ours, as little more than dead weight to be carted from one place to the next.

Unlike the perfectly (if accidentally) rewritten novel penned by the protagonist of Jorge Luis Borges' short story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1970), Wolfe's books are empty boxes rather than complete printed texts, but their power as triggers of concept and memory remains, is even oddly heightened. The artist uses a range of materials and techniques to create the most convincing possible illusion of his subject without recourse to actual publishing. Covers generally blend silkscreen and lithographic printing with hand oil painting, while the structure of each 'book' is most often a combination of modelling paste and wood. But while the books are, physically, all surface, it would be wrong to dismiss Wolfe's project as superficial. As well as taking care to select subjects that will require him to learn new techniques, and never, ever, skimping on a detail, he obsesses just as much over the web of meanings spun by the cultural value of each one, and by the juxtaposition of different titles or images.

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