New York

Nancy Barton

American Fine Arts

“I took up photography and its attraction was not that of creativity or expression, but the potential for recrimination.” This is one of the autobiographical statements Nancy Barton has silkscreened onto a marble-patterned Formica panel. Barton has managed to be recriminating at a time when most artists, male and female alike, seem to be more than content with the status quo. The installation is called, terrifyingly enough, “Swan Song,” and it consists of panels covered with quotations from the artist, her mother, and the writings of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Catherine Clement, all juxtaposed with recreations of opera advertisements. Barton uses her mother as a model for these ads. The elder Barton wears elaborate costumes and heavy makeup, and strikes melodramatic poses; the colors in the photographs are lurid, the lighting, heavy-handed. The photos advertise the suffering of these operatic heroines—Barton favors spectacularly tragic operas such as Salomé, Médée, Thaïs, La Gioconda, and Electra—who are almost without exception doomed, desiring, mad, and hopelessly excessive. Barton manages to represent these icons of female suffering by illustrating them with manipulated images of her own mother. She reminds us that each of the operas ends with the death of the female protagonist.

The text reads like a relentless narrative, bringing the viewer deeper and deeper into the darkness at the heart of something that has been called femininity. We are told the story of the mother, a woman who abandons her singing in order to get married and raise a family. It is such a typical story that it is moving in its very banality. She has two children, a daughter and a son. The son dies at an early age. The daughter grows up to be an artist.

Barton is never sentimental, never cloying in the style of some feminist work of the ’70s. She exploits, exposes, and examines the violence of representation by making a slick yet deeply disturbing and personal object. She breaks up the space of objectification, the picture plane, the realm of representation, by placing right in the center of it the image of her own mother and the echo of her mother’s voice. She “uses” her mother in the most literal sense of the word. In the discourses of both psychoanalysis and Marxism, the mother is that which is radically unrepresentable and that which cannot be reduced to use value. Barton takes this all apart and puts it all together again under a recriminatory gaze.

The performance that accompanied this show, in which Barton’s mother sang arias from Madame Butterfly and songs from light operas, was both moving and excruciating. The artist’s use of her mother is particularly inflammatory, bringing to mind a daughter’s revenge on her mother, which traditional morality would like to suppress. Barton makes us uncomfortable with the ways she exposes herself and her mother; in so doing, she compels us to question the limits of what is appropriate material for representation. The work’s slickness draws us in and seduces us into expecting a more domesticated art object, but its powerful inscriptions and melodramatic images bring us to a new space of viewership. It asks us to confront the emptiness and the darkness at the heart of our own representations of the past.

Catherine Liu