Toronto

Barbara Claus

Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography

In “Entr’ouverture,” an exhibition of enlarged details of photographs taken in unnamed European graveyards and charcoal drawings based on Minimalist structures, Barbara Claus explores memory and its erosion.

Claus selects subjects—a tablet in the shape of an open book, cast-iron angels that stand guard in a cemetery, and an abandoned grave site—characterized by a sentimentality that permeates the exhibition. Their surfaces, flooded with gray light, read as details of a larger whole. Expanded in scale, these photographs have an authority that transcends the individual object. Together they serve as a metaphor for melancholy and the sadness of life passing.

In this show—one of a series of exhibitions on the theme of death, organized by the gallery—Claus dealt less with the subject of mortality than with the kind of erasure that results over time and the psychological distance forged by absence. Here, the artist is telling her audience that, even after death, nothing is certain; families vanish and stones turn to dust. Claus’ is a bitter tale based on uncertainty and absence.

This pervasive melancholy is countered by simple drawings, rendered in pigment directly onto the walls. Depicting formations that echo the structure of the imagery found in the photographs but that contrast diametrically with their grayed tonality, Claus’ drawings have a strength and physicality that comes as a welcome relief. Playing the immediacy of the hand-rendered drawing off the mediated distance of the photographs, this show rails against the blanketing of the past in silence.

Because the artist is reluctant to impose her subjectivity onto these images, they lack a specificity that would give the audience something to cling to. Instead, they are of a generic/historical type. It is only the closely cropped image of the abandoned grave that interrupts the predominant sentimentality of the show. The grave becomes a site of investigation, possibly taken from a news-service photograph of a hastily dug grave or an archaeological expedition. Here Claus has finally dropped her poetic excesses long enough to allow the audience to invest the image with its own experiences. While this is not to suggest that Claus’ own intentions are less valid, they are, at times, immobilizied by the silence and erosion of memory that her images are intended to critique.

Linda Genereux