PRINT Summer 1990


INASMUCH AS WE INHABIT a world choked with images, we are subject to an incessant barrage of fictions, each projected as some quantity of truth—or, at least, of credibility. The phenomenon is fueled, of course, by the mass media, but it implicitly involves the history of art. The mystical faith in symbolic figures, from primitive cultures to contemporary religious art; the authority granted to engravings and other printed pictures from both since and before the invention of photography; the tendency to accept historical, portrait, and other academic genres of painting and sculpture as if they were factually correct—all these examples of images’ reception by their audience illustrate that visual art has been a primary source of cultural misinformation, misrepresentation, mythification, persuasion, and hallucination. Whether unwittingly or quite intentionally, artists have rendered nature, civilization, and human experience as seemingly objective physical realities, as if what they claimed to see were not in some way a construct of their own vision. And it would be naive to expect that their apprehensions of actuality would not be made use of by whatever institutional forces are operant in the environment of the time. Thus artworks, and particularly photographs, have acted as figments of mediated evidence, false windows on the world through which we the viewers gaze without necessarily recognizing the distortions created by this particular glass, or the difference between the camera’s eye and our own, between the three-dimensional event and its impression, or, ultimately, between what is and the phenomenology of observation.

It is inevitable that our thoughts, personal histories, emotions, and sensory perceptions will distort and disguise reality, or, rather, will be involved, actively rather than passively, in whatever we encounter. The subtle intervention of the psyche in the process of collective and individual witnessing is a radical X factor, a variable, unmeasurable, unknowable, and irrational term that has undermined the certainty of every equation we’ve ever used to describe the universe. For a number of years now, artists sensitive to this issue have worked to demystify representation’s formal authority, scrutinizing the borders between ideological and factual content, universal and personal experience, between self-identity or self-expression and those expressions and identities determined by larger cultural conditions. In fact, the critical examination, exposure, and tactical repositioning of the prevalent images, seductive myths, and subliminal messages within media culture and art history provide perhaps the characteristic note in the voice of current art. But this is not exactly what Barbara Ess does. Ess is no less aware of the preexisting lies perpetrated and perpetuated within our dehumanized social architecture than other, explicitly critical artists. Rather than address these falsities directly, however, she draws our attention to the intense primal emotions and experiences that exist like brittle moments of truth even within the world of simulation. She reveals the abrupt, jagged shards of brief and incomplete revelation, distressed, distracted, and episodic fragments of broken-down communication, and little pockets of nearly forgotten residual memory trapped under the frustrations and delusions of our repressive security blanket. And she does this through photography—the primary vehicle of contemporary culture’s implicitly ideological efforts to convey the facts of the world. In their assertion of the priority of subjective experience over any claim to objective vision, Ess’ images are perhaps farther outside the status quo of image-making than are the works of many apparently more radicalized artists.

What Ess gives us is never so much the illustration of an idea as a tracing of the space around it, or of its metaphoric equivalent, all caught in the tense abstraction of an image between enigma and ellipse. Blurred, disfigured, and insubstantial, her capsular attenuations of space and time impose their microcosmic view on us in an impressively larger-than-life scale. Their demeanor is both voluptuous and swollen, and if they made a sound it would be a kind of whispering hiss at once grating and seductive. The central meanings of these staged and stylized compositions lie not in what they actually describe but in the manner and texture of their remarks. “Truth” here is submerged within the tangent of “topic,” interred in the photographs’ thick, rich, saturated, resonant color, a monochromatic shroud that filters each image as if through some space of the mind. Although the pictures may initially seem a strange, unclear, unreal kind of representation, their vague and evocative forms eventually do emerge somehow as cohesive images, which, though peculiar in subject, coloring, and distortion, make their own sense. The introspective personal tone and spiritual quality of the work lie outside the literal values of straight photography. Meaning reveals itself here at no single point of the viewer’s participation but only through a gradual process of visual and emotional meditation, a continuous juggling of responses to stimuli both external (the image) and internal (the free-associating imagination). The metamorphic evolution of our relationship with these photographs may thus go from the incomprehension we feel when faced with apparent nonmeaning, through a recognition of the work’s physical forms as elements photographically rendered in such a way as to appear abstract and obscure, to comprehension of a psychological reality captured in the picture as a truth unto itself.

Distortion in these images is a direct result of Ess’ particular photographic medium. The way the space curves and blurs at its edges, where the image dissolves and fades to black, is inherent in the pinhole camera that Ess uses. Pinhole photography is the perfect device for Ess in its condensation of perspective, its confinement of space in a wraparound that doesn’t let us view the world beyond it, and in the way it gives everything a sense of psychologically charged perception. It is also a conceptually clever subtext to this artist’s interest in primary, personal experience. This is the original means of photographic invention, after all, the most primitive form of camera. A box with a tiny hole through which images pass in a tight beam of light, it is so basic in its perception that it sets no lens between the source and its depiction.

During the late ’70s, when Ess was still actively involved in music (her most notable band being Y Pants) and was engaged in the New York postpunk, art-rock, alternative-club-scene energy and sensibility, her photos were a clearer record of personal and social interactions. At one time her pictures had a snapshot-portrait immediacy and spontaneity recalling Nan Goldin’s photography: typically, two figures involved in the domestic, psychosexual implications of being a “couple” were seen in still, private moments of unposed and unconscious gesture, glance, or posture that revealed the tension in their involvements with one another and with their environment. Even this work, however, was as allegorical as it was representational, and far less concerned with formalist composition than with issues of conceptual content or visionary metaphor. Ess’ view has not shifted in beliefs or perceptions but rather has transplanted itself onto successive levels of increasingly less empirical and more psychological trajectory. Her work of 1989–90 must thus be understood as a continuous extension and expansion of her earlier pictures, mining regions even farther underneath the surface of things to find the essence of experience that exists inside insight.

Unlike earlier work such as the “Food for the Moon” and “Ecstasy” series, 1986 and 1982–88 respectively, Ess’ latest photographs were not conceived to operate together as a cohesive group, but their shared ideas and feelings make it easy to think of them as a single body of work. Considering them, then, within the parenthetical context of how they might constitute a specific period in the larger framework of Ess’ creative development, it’s possible to see certain similarities in their subjects, as well as a consistent or recurring emotional dynamic in the way the artist relates to the issues she raises. As in much of Ess’ photography prior to this, the images reveal a deeply embedded psychic axis of enclosure and exclusion around which everything seems to orbit, suggesting a balance between the tame and secure indoor life and the uncultivated and alienated outside. A carefully manicured plant trained along a picket fence is the subject we may eventually make out in one of these works. In the gentle glow and glory of a quiet summer afternoon, its flowers hang aimlessly in bursts of ripe satiety between the fence’s slats, suspended there in precious repose like puffed-up aromatic clouds floating in a warm, comatose haze. In another recent work Ess has photographed a wall in winter, its surface covered by a clinging lattice of leafless vines, so that the image impersonates an endless labyrinth of tiny cracks. An artificial architectural imposition receives an organic reticulation.

Fence and wall in these pictures are not accidental reminders of the way we continually split up space into hierarchies of in and out. Ess is interested in the claustrophobic containment, concealment, and aggressive privatization of every part and parcel of existence save a few narrow strips on which we commute. The fence in particular is a purely metaphoric border—a marker of space accepted as a signifier of “no trespassing” by a society that does not question the right of ownership and exclusive domain. The juxtaposition in these works of the vegetal and the manmade is a contrast and hybridization of humanity and nature, a direct opposition of chaos, wilderness, freedom, and life against the rational, tame, restricted, inorganic, and mediated. Ess may situate this dichotomy outdoors, in, for example, an image looking upward through blurred swirling foliage into a rambling, out-of-bounds nature that encloses us in a rapturous summer idyll as it rushes past our eyes, like some vague memory recovered in a waking sleep. Or she may find it inside, photographing a stuffed and mounted ram’s head that looks directly at us and smiles with a Mona Lisa–like ambiguity.

Ess’ vision of reality is set firmly in the realm of the senses, or even the extra senses. Though objects like the ram’s head are easy enough to identify, just as often she avoids recognizably referential images, exposing basically simple and familiar fragments of ordinary life to an obtuse syntax of mannerist, allegorical, symbolist, and impressionist ciphers. The images navigate the osmotic plane between meanings. Dilations of circumstance that oppose their own provenance within the system of photography, they are almost always untitled, leaving their field of suggestion broad and inclusive yet opaque. This field is diaphanous and fluxional. It is as if one’s memory were heightened, drawing up fragments of views one wouldn’t ordinarily recall that one had ever seen, but pulling them out of any context that would identify them. The photographs relay an emotional involvement far beyond the ordinary associations attached to the inventory of imagery that they represent (as a pictorial fiction) and record (through the science of photography). They are projected approximations of an experience that must be magnified even to register, for its traces remain only in a region of insubstantial impression where remote feelings and ideas dwell on the periphery of sensory perception and cognitive understanding.

The idea of giving titles to Ess’ works, or even of trying to describe them, shows clearly just how fragile and delicate is the balance of subtlety, fluidity, multiplicity, and intimacy in which her provocative ambivalences conspire. Ess maintains a dynamic among barely compatible positions that often tend to deny each other, and their involvements and interactions within her esthetic are far more complex than they immediately appear. She has somehow managed to deposit in her most recent work a simultaneous array of emotionally double-edged and volatile responses—attraction and revulsion, desire and dread, involvement and alienation, containment and hysteria, security and claustrophobia, vulnerability and strength. The convergence of these conflicting qualities within a single, relatively uncrowded picture is remarkable. No one emotion upsets the equilibrium of the work, nor is the tension allowed to lapse into any trap of compromise or easy resolution. Neither is the coexistence maintained by adopting the inflections of cynicism, superficiality, or insensitivity. Essential to her success in this is that while the troubling emotional and ideological pressure within her work infuses the pictures with highly charged psychological undercurrents of restlessness and morbid sorrow, the simple and familiar subject matter prevents these schizophrenic forces from erupting in ideological overstatements or emotional melodramatics. This is the real brilliance of the partnership between the subjectively loaded subtext and the reduced visual syntax of Ess’ art: their combination in a seamless frame where they conjure their entirely new, disturbing revisions of everyday experience into a strange and plangent space of the mind.

In some peculiar way, Ess seems to follow in the tradition of 19th-century English women novelists such as Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, who similarly transfigured minor bits of fiction into fascinating narratives that expose every aspect of existence to the personal sympathies, humanist observations, passionate obsessions, and sharp social satirizations of the artists’ creative intellect. Ess measures the cumulative effects of the routine world on the turbulence, hypersensitivity, and epic exaggeration of the imagination. Her ability to observe the subtle shapes of violence, madness, dependency, and inertia, intimately evoked from the trifling details of civilization, locates for us those sites of overcultivation whose landmarks, customs, and assumptions appear so commonplace, so generic and lifelessly predictable, that their configuration of discrete oppression is habitually overlooked. Because Ess doesn’t make art about the faults, fallacies, and failures she may find in the currencies of fiction or truth that circulate within contemporary culture, it may not be evident how subversive her elevation of subjectivity is in relation to conventional, rational conceptions of reality as a set of empirically verifiable facts. By emphasizing the extremely relative nature of perception, its dependence on the emotional disposition of the viewer (which may shift at any moment, or, on the other hand, may be predetermined by memories and associations having nothing to do with the image being viewed), Ess suggests that individual thoughts and feelings have a truth far deeper than the code of objectivity that reason asserts as law. The rejection of objectivity implicit in this art is more than a token transgression. The perception of reality can only be subjective, Ess maintains, because there can be no such thing as objectivity in a world that is mediated through and by the observer. She reminds us that the only thing we will ever really have or know is our own experience of the truth.

Carlo McCormick lives in Ness York and writes regularly for Artforum. He is associate editor of The Paper.