New York

Bill Barrette


Bill Barrette’s carefully fabricated boxlike constructions, incorporating optical devices, early photography, and found objects, suggest early cameras, which faithfully transcribed their views onto silvered glass plates. Many of Barrette’s boxes contain photographic portraits, usually derived from daguerreotypes of nameless sitters captured in uncomfortable formal poses, in which the subject looks out at the viewer looking in. Other images include a monochromatic view of an ancient city and a red-dyed, photographic image of a 19th-century painting of a town consumed by fire. The resulting vignettes are eerily disquieting.

Mounted on the wall and supplied with matter-of-fact titles such as Two Sisters #39, 1990, Anonymous Child #29, 1989, or Anonymous Couple #35, 1990, Barrette’s open contraptions provoke the viewers’ curiosity —we want to know how they work. Intrigued by the shadows they cast on the walls, the lattice work, the open sides, the portraits inside the boxes, or the one’s mounted on the front walls and pierced by lenses, I found myself pacing around the boxes and peering into them from each side before looking through the front aperture. Bending over to peer into the boxes, one must adjust one’s distance from the lens before an image clarifies itself. Sometimes the image appears to float inside the box.

The anonymous portraits evoke the past from which we have descended as well as the future of which we will inevitably become an “anonymous” part. Barrette’s work turns the viewer’s curiosity inside out, and makes looking a self-reflexive act. Evoking both the past and the future, the altered photographs underscore our time-bound existence.

One can draw numerous parallels between Barrette’s hybrid sculptures and Marcel Duchamp’s late work, particularly Large Glass, in which the viewer sees himself looking at the work, and Étant Donnée, where the viewer becomes a voyeur. And yet, Barrette’s boxes are about history rather than art history. They are neither “art about art” nor comments on art. In this respect Barrette’s work stands apart from that of many of his contemporaries, who seem locked in a claustrophobically self-conscious dialogue with art history. Barrette extends Duchamp’s inquiry in an altogether unexpected direction. Borrowing not only from Duchamp’s late work, but also from the formidable art-historical achievements of the Minimalists, Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and photography; he has initiated a speculative investigation of the decentered self, the nature of identity, and the irrevocable passing of time. Barrette doesn’t produce another insight into the death of the author, he explores the desire each of us has to authenticate the self.

John Yau