Los Angeles

Nancy Barton

Christopher Grimes Gallery

Nancy Barton has a knack for making art that’s at once self-centered and self-deprecating—for her the personal is both political and pathetic. Although devoting weighty consideration to intensely intimate subject matter, her work always comes packaged in the most laughable melodrama. In her most recent show, “Live and Let Die,” 1992, works with names like Doctor No and Stayin Alive depict her decidedly mixed emotions toward her father. Surprisingly, Barton manages to evoke white-bread icons James Bond and John Travolta without stuffing tongue in cheek; on the contrary, this new work is as unblinkingly earnest as ever.

She uses blown-up family snapshots of herself as a child relaxing with Dad in the pool. In Doctor No, 1912-1984 (all works 1992), an over-the-hill Dad is shown in a life-size photograph posing as a boxer, dukes up. Unlike in “Swan Song,” an ill-tempered reflection on her mother’s abandoned career as an opera singer, there is no excerpted theory on display, as if Barton were denying herself access to a transcendent critical position in favor of an unprotected sparring match with her melancholic childhood memories. Combining Fome-core-mounted family and commercial photos she effects a cinematic montage in which personal history gets sown uneasily into the narratives of the dominant culture. Barton refuses to treat her story as if it were a timeless epic, employing instead a highly hackneyed esthetic in her collages, cropping the photos into odd-shaped polyhedrons and gathering them into loose-fitting ensembles that recall SoCal cut-stone pool decks. Call it Perry Como Cubism.

At the same time, Barton’s work attempts to expand on her direct experiences of sexual politics. Its outright tackiness roots it firmly in the milieu from which those experiences arise—middle-class suburban culture. In this way, Barton owns up to the fact that, as ageless and all-powerful as patriarchy is, it can’t exist solely in the abstract—its only means of exerting its hegemony in the present is by speaking through the clichéd discourse of everyday life.

The ambivalence that characterizes Barton’s art comes across not as simple shoulder-shrugging but as surface evidence of deep-seated instability. In this show, Barton extends her portrayal of her parents beyond the pat symbolic roles they flesh out, tapping instead into the explosive love-hate emotions on which her relationship to them depends. A dysfunctional nuclear-family triptych dominated the gallery—on opposite walls two works schematized the unequal division of signifying power perpetrated in our culture under the guise of sexual difference: Patriarchal Landscape includes images of writing, a gun-slinging cowboy, and a mountain peak, while Live And Let Die spies a bed frame, an open window, and dark foliage. Hanging on the wall between these is Circle of Deceit, in which the figure of a young woman, cropped at the neck and thighs, reclines in a chair, fingering a mess of spaghetti heaped in her lap. This blunt depiction of masturbation acts like a collapsed bridge between the other two works, its mixture of self-absorption and transgression defying both the mother’s coddling and the father’s law.

Bunker Mentality reprises the same theme: a cinder-block wall defines a cramped enclosure in the gallery’s far corner. Behind the wall Barton amasses family snapshots, plastic, and spent bullet shells—it’s a shoot-out at the Oedipal corral. In one photograph a tiny image of Mom and Dad is pasted over young Barton’s wide-opened mouth, suggesting Barton’s internalization of her parent’s regime, yet the expression on her face appears far too ecstatic. Rather than a bitter pill, she looks like she’s swallowing the bittersweet blood of those by whom she feels most betrayed.

Lane Relyea