New York

Nancy Barton and Michael Glass

American Fine Arts

We all have our pet “bad objects,” whipping posts that we condemn in order to make ourselves feel better. In this show Nancy Barton and Michael Glass explore the complex psychic mechanisms by which these scapegoats are designated, showing how the ego produces a denigrated object in order to maintain a fantasy of unity and coherence. “Bad objects” all serve the same purpose—the consolidation of power for a dominant group; thus racism, misogyny, and homophobia can be understood as different manifestations of this psychic mechanism. By presenting a white woman and a black man figuratively and literally on the same picture plane in their photographs, Barton and Glass and not simply being flatly transgressive. The figures interact as two images that have been degraded in our cultural “imaginary” in different ways but to the same ends.

Quotes from various sources—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Frantz Fanon, Nietzsche, Melanie Klein, and Hélène Cixous silk-screened onto tasteful wood paneling as captions for the photos, give the entire installation the feel of a provincial natural-history or science museum. But rather than representing simple pedagogical narratives, this installation is trying to teach us something altogether “other” about how precisely the other is produced. The artists use found images, from what appear to be a textbook, in which women and blacks are designated as inferior to the white male whose presence is implied but never explicit.

Barton and Glass are dealing with how dysfunctional object relations are endemic rather than exceptional, and how the way in which we have represented ourselves on this matrix has been traumatic in and of itself. Quotes like, “The patient split off those parts of himself, i.e. of his ego which he felt to be dangerous and hostile. He turned his destructive impulses from his object towards his ego, with the result that parts of his ego temporarily went out of existence,” are aligned with more testimonial statements: “In both my fascination with the morbid details of humiliation and my attempt to avert my eyes, I am implicated. Watching, I become identified with what I have witnessed.” This uncanny layering of voices creates a space in which something like insight is produced. This insight is difficult to articulate without the images, but it has something to do with masochism as an adjunct strategy of survival in the matrix of bad object relations.

Integrating high camp with cultural critique, Barton and Glass escape the seriousness of critique that is contaminated by precisely those forms of thinking that it attempts to question. The most striking image is one that echoes the famous photograph by W. Eugene Smith of a Japanese woman bathing a chemically poisoned child in a therapeutic bath. Barton’s gaze looks like that of the Madonna in the Pietà. Glass floats in dark water, like an infirm infant; the two figures are sealed in an imaginary space but as a dyad they are symbolic of the most intense catastrophes of our time. It is an image of healing because it is also hilarious: laughter sometimes can be the best medicine.

The artists have a great ear for appropriated text, and the combination of language and image in this installation worked together to create a meditative space in which the viewer is invited to tackle some challenging ideas. The work was strongest where it was unencumbered by a literal agenda; at those moments it was able to move between pathos and the pathetic, with an almost childlike innocence.

Catherine Liu

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