New York

Tina Barney

Janet Borden, Inc.

The people in Tina Barney’s photos look like evil twins of the people in Ralph Lauren ads. The Lauren ads sell exclusion by merchandizing WASP style as something you have to be born into, implicitly canceling out any consumer who has to buy his or her way in. What Ralph Lauren presents as scenes of plenitude Barney exposes as scenes of zombitude. While they’re not exactly sinister, they are testimony to the discreet vacuousness of the upper-middle-class WASP subject. Barney uses blandness as a weapon against itself. Oddness creeps around the edges, and pulls us in. In one sporty and cosmic image, an old man clutches a beach ball printed like the globe. He squints into the sun/camera with his mouth slightly ajar, as if he’s ready to meet his maker with this prop, lightly dusted with sand and surrounded by blurred beach. In another image, a man in white turns around against the black of a nighttime party. A couple enters frame left. There is a beautiful sense of nonencounter since they are all looking in different directions and only one of them seems drunk. In another moving image, a little girl looks down in a private reverie and hugs herself, while two grown-ups behind her talk to someone who is just outside of the frame. The mother type is cut off at the glasses, while the older-brother type is cut off just below the nose.

Barney hones in on the spatial and cultural proximity of people who seem to be on different emotional planets. While the images have a witty edge, there is a poignant sense that these are lost moments, seen by no one. Like certain social situations and families, photos don’t show “inner experience”; as if by default, they bump into it anyway, only to estrange it further. Her casual snapshot esthetic reflects the expressive minimalism characteristic of this particular social milieu. Precisely because her material is so “personal,” there is a pathetic sense of the photo as something capturing the memories that no one had: those ubiquitous experiential dead spots.

Called “Swimming,” this show was a collaborative project with Tina Howe, whose short play hung on the wall across from the pictures. The two Tinas are good at capturing the feeling of chat as a plasmatic layer filling in for emotions that will never make it to the surface, except maybe through alcohol or the occasional insane aunt. Howe’s play is set on a stretch of New England beach, where a mom pumps her grown-up kids for information about their father’s new wife while they “desperately” try to change the subject by talking about how weird other people are, especially regarding their beachwear: “They were so . . . strange! She wore a shower cap and one of those old lady bathing suits with a ruffled skirt. And he wore Bermuda shorts and flippers! Bright green flippers!”

My favorite image was of an indoor pool with lanes marked slow, medium slow, medium fast, and fast. Five people at the end of the pool look like they’re going to do laps. Three oldsters are bobbing together in the middle, visiting; they look content, and vulnerable in their bathing caps.

Rhonda Lieberman