Los Angeles

Uta Barth

Like many of her post-conceptualist peers, Uta Barth is concerned with exploring and critiquing the ideological deceits of mediated information. This has become a somewhat stale practice in recent years. Raised on Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” nurtured by Jean Baudrillard’s “procession of simulacra,” and primed by feminist rereadings of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, many artists have come to accept deconstructive readings of all language as mediated chains of deferred meaning and desire. Earnest warnings of the crisis of representation through the reallegorization of the photographic image strike few sparks now that post-structuralism has become the academic mainstream of esthetic discourse and interpretation.

Barth’s added wrinkle to this scenario, however, is to redefine mediation as a two-way street, as a reciprocal exercise in voyeurism and control on the part of both mediator and mediated. Under the banner of “Deliberate Investigations,” an exhibition of four Los Angeles-based artists that also included works by Connie Hatch, Dede Bazyk, and David Bunn, Barth offered an installation of eclectic photographic imagery and painted abstractions in black and white. Arranged in sequential groups of four, one to each wall, each configuration triggers a narrative progression much like that of a film storyboard. However, the syntagmatic flow is exploded by disjunctive paradigmatic associations, not only within each set, but from wall to wall.

Reading Untitled #6, Configuration #2, 1988–89, from left to right, for example discloses a metonymic chain of viewing that moves from acts of public to private surveillance, from notions of seeing to being seen. Thus, an enlarged newspaper photograph of a police helicopter scanning the streets with a searchlight at night is followed sequentially by an image of a solar eclipse, an Op-art painting of radiating lines, and a side-view image of the artist herself, spotlit as an object of interrogation. While the eclipse and the painting act as paradigms for the artwork as active producer—the blocked-out sun becomes a staring eye, the painting a retinally dazzling affront—the images of surveillance are innately passive and generic, encouraging the viewer’s participation in a symbiotic hermeneutic relationship.

Such meaning production spills over into the other series, triggering formal and thematic associations not only within the installation as a whole, but also colonizing the transformative act of seeing itself as a supplemental subtext. In Untitled #1, Configuration #1, 1988–89, Barth repeats the image of her own interrogation, but juxtaposes it with another view of the same scenario, this time seen frontally. As viewers, we are quickly moved from the comfortable position of voyeurs to passive receivers of the artist’s gaze; we watch Barth watching us watching her watching us. The accompanying images of a white circle on black ground (with its connotations of an abstracted eclipse) and eyeball exposed by metal retractors (shades of A Clockwork Orange, with all the manipulative, exploitative critique that suggests) reinforce the metaphorical connection of surveillance. However, they also complicate the narrative flow, forcing us away from horizontal, syntagmatic associations to vertical, paradigmatic connections with other engaged media, such as painting, film, and graphic design.

Although Barth appears to be concerned with the paradoxical nature of communication—language as simultaneously passive/aggressive, revealing/concealing, inclusive/exclusive—her work ultimately fails to jar us out of our sense of hermeneutic superiority. While there is an obvious attempt to indict our voyeurism in general, there is little in Barth’s pristine formal arrangements to make us feel uncomfortable in our smug interpretative and critical role. In this context at least, Barth’s deft reversal of the act of surveillance—placing the viewer in the interrogative spotlight—becomes yet another predictable move in an already overplayed game.

Colin Gardner