New York

Robert Barry

Gian Enzo Sperone Gallery

Ironically this review of Robert Barry's slide piece relies on description. The attempt to represent, to categorize a work which itself reflects on that process of structuring information. For Magnificent—Trees revolves around the use of language, whether through words or pictures. Language serving to define a reality, to clarify and encode it; language extending one's perception, expanding it through thinking, evoking a conception of nature; and yet language remaining imprecise, tangent to experience. But to begin with the setting for these speculations. A darkened room. Seated enclosed within an empty space. The sense of privacy, similar to the isolation of one's viewing in the publicness of a movie theater, heightened by the lack of crowdedness. The only sound, the steady click of the machine as it flashes its projections on the wall in front. A word, small white letters articulating a horizontal shape against the obscurity of the wall. Then a blank, dark like the wall, the frame of the slide indistinguishable from its screen. Next an image, a schematic rendition of a tree, vertical, white against black. Another blank, another pause. And the pattern repeats in linear sequence, one after the other, as the carousel curves around to begin again. All the words are adjectives, ascribing a quality, impressing a tone on conjecture. The pictures of trees function as nouns. Actually they are symbols used in architectural drawings, the characters of a pictorial writing. And they become signs naming an object, establishing the facts of a vocabulary. The pauses are the punctuation. Dashes, links in one's thinking. A time for assimilation, association, connecting what has gone before with the anticipation of what is to come. The space in which one structures meaning.

Here it seems necessary to turn to the specifics of the text. For it is through the particular words and images that one fabricates a narrative of thought. Stimuli which mediate response. Magnificent. Flavoring my musing with splendor. Notions of the sublime. Barbizon School landscapes flicker through my mind. The tree as an emblem, exalted, significant. Yet the depiction is a standardizedtree, perhaps a maple, ordinary, nothing exotic. Upsetting. My expectations overturned? The word playing backward and forward in reflection. A contradiction of preconceived ideas of tree. And the word reverses in the erect visualization of a tall, spindly poplar. Is the piece then just a game of matching adjective with noun, joining the clue to its picture? No, the process seems to parallel a way of classifying experience. The conditioning of perception through a mode of thinking. The shaping of meaning through its sign.

As the cycle progresses, the interaction of words and images nudges consideration of the whole. Approximate. Language as a representation, a substitute. The given cue, concept or image, approaching a definition, not exact. Literal. It is what it is. Letters on a wall, the projection of marks. But translation seeps in, structuring what is objectively there, figuring interpretation. Orthodox. The words, the designs, a conventional system of notation. An accepted framework of signification. The public doctrine of meaning as . boundary of conceptualization. Dissociated. The separateness of each slide. The click of the projector prefacing an independent unit. Yet the fragments cluster, aggregating a whole, just as the trunk and the leaves branch into a tree. And one weaves a context out of the parts. Skipping ahead. . . spontaneous. The drawing, despite its slashy lines, seems highly stylized. But is one's imagination leaping off the word, “flowing” into associations, any less mannered? How free is one's thinking to meander? And to what extent is it already manipulated, controlled by the very terms it uses in formulation?

I could go on listing Barry's words. Terrific. Forcing a chuckle as one silently exclaims it. Witty. Smug in its shape, lightly mocking one's laughter at the often incongruous juxtapositions of description and designation. But what I hope is apparent is the ongoing dialogue the piece promotes. The interchange between word and image provoking speculation on the interrelationship of perception and conception. Does understanding reside in the actuality of experience, or is it already grounded in the ideology of a language? How much of a statement is objective, a fact? And to what extent is the act of presentation itself an interpretation which implies the subjective? Questions, more questions. And what is personal, sensed as impression, intertwines with what is learned as meaning.

Susan Heinemann