Critics’ Picks

Nancy Barton, Swan Song, Lakme, 1988, chromogenic color print and Formica, panel: 60 x 24“; photograph: 36 x 24”. From the series “Swan Song,” 1988.

New York

Nancy Barton

71 Morton Street
April 27–June 1, 2019

Nancy Barton’s “Swan Song” is a series in two times. Originally presented in 1988 at New York’s American Fine Arts, Co., this body of work can be located within the trajectory of CalArts’ “Skeptical Beliefs,” with its expectation of ceaseless critique or, at worst, critique reified as “smart” style. This feels like a distant memory, it seems, even though so many significant artists were born of that acidic soil, such as Mike Kelley, Christopher Williams, Carrie Mae Weems, and, of course, Barton herself.

“Swan Song” consists of ten reliefs that pair photo-based images and text. They mimic the look of posters announcing opera productions, all of them featuring tragic (or histrionic) female characters from myth, literature, and history—Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor, Salome and Elektra, among other staples of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century repertoire. The artist’s mother, Marjorie Barton, who had studied voice at the Julliard School of Music but gave up these aspirations in order to raise a family, is the star throughout. There’s something painfully intimate about Barton’s focus on her own mother, who is both glamorous and cursed. The texts of “Swan Song” feature stories from both Bartons: Their jangled recollections of life unfurl against the backdrop of Los Angeles. Autobiography is subsumed by art—on the one hand the untrammeled passions and desperate fates proffered by opera, on the other a distanced, endlessly ambiguous photographic record. These commingle with excerpts from the librettos and passages of critical theory—Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, Luce Irigaray. Barton suggests an afterlife for her mother’s abandoned musical dreams, dressing her up for the roles she never played, a gesture at once restorative and sarcastic (Barton remarks that the appeal of photography “was not that of creativity or self-expression, but the potential for recrimination”). The series is moving, but not in a Hallmark way: It’s too kitchen-sink miserable and archly ironic. Why not find out that Elektra and Lucia live in the Hollywood Hills, resigned and depressed, vengeful and fatal?