San Diego

Nancy Barton; Leslie Ernst; Erika Suderburg


Three sound and sculpture installations were shown recently at this artist-run alternative space in downtown San Diego, each of them with an underlying social and/or political theme. Nancy Barton’s The Power of a Singular Vision used a multimedia portrait of the artist's father to represent the clash between idealism and economic reality. Leslie Ernst’s Get Dressed played off the image of a typical department store dressing room to raise issues about the plight of garment workers. And Erika Suderburg’s Trip without Travel—Irrigation Channels commented on the propagandistic nature of the conventional natural history museum installation.

Barton’s was by far the most interesting of the three works. In The Power of a Singular Vision she used pieces of her family history to make a haunting statement about the American dream. Consciously choosing a limited amount of data—approximately 50 photographs and ten minutes of taped recollections—she evoked the story of a man’s entire life. As in Barton's own family, her father was the pivotal figure here. Filling a small room of the gallery were photographs of the man, his family, his home, and his work. The pictures were divided into five collage groupings, each one centered around a single large color portrait of her father posing as a classical Roman figure, either as an athlete or a statesman. These pictures, we learn, were taken just before he died at the age of 68. Surrounding the posed shots were other more candid pictures: from his acting career (he played on Broadway in Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda); from his career as a business entrepreneur (he invented the TelePrompTer); with his family, including snapshots showing the artist as a child; and from his recent past, along with one of his tombstone. We learn he died of a heart attack.

The photographs were accompanied by a continuously running tape, primarily of her father describing the choices he made during the course of his life. These comments are short and somewhat sentimental (but not overly so). He evidently regretted having abandoned his acting career, and yet he seems satisfied that the decisions he had believed were necessary to support his family were the right ones. His comments are echoed by responses from Barton's mother, who talks philosophically about their business and money difficulties.

The autobiographical nature of this portrait is somewhat disconcerting, both because it reveals so much so directly and because it is difficult to evaluate the artistic significance of something so unabashedly personal. And yet, the personal quality of the work helped me to identify strongly with the characters: the father trying to realize the American dream through his art and then through commerce, the family benefiting and suffering in the face of such high ideals. (Apparently, Mr. Barton was not a very successful businessman.) But the piece is never maudlin or overindulgent.

In an age when various forms of psychoanalytic approach are increasingly being used as a conscious aspect of artmaking, it is still extraordinary to find a woman artist who puts her father up to public scrutiny. Barton shows him half-naked posing as a diver and an archer, for example, demonstrating an unquestionable vanity on his part and a somewhat questionable aspect of her relationship to him. But Barton shows his vulnerability as well as his vanity, his scars together with his physicality. This is a portrait of human potential and human frailty, and of the crushing realities that impinge on the American dream.

Reviewed by Susan Freudenheim.