New York

Tina Barney

Janet Borden, Inc.

It would be nice to write a review of Tina Barney’s splendid new photographs without mentioning the dread words WASP, New England, or (worst of all) Ralph Lauren, but for most reviewers her work, with its focus on the lives of well-fed, conservatively clothed white people, raises the issue of class, and class is something Americans prefer not to think about. Barney clearly does think about it to the extent that she is aware that an individual’s fate is determined by income, education, and nurture, but she is entirely undoctrinaire. With a kind of anxious fidelity she records the lives of the people she knows best. They are relatively privileged people but Barney refuses to be judgmental. To dismiss Barney’s work because she is insufficiently hostile to her subject matter makes about as much sense as dismissing Mantegna because he glorified the Dukes of Mantua. Barney simply reveals her subjects in all their vulnerability and unease: her gaze is unsparing and oddly slanted, and she pays us the great compliment of assuming that we can draw our own conclusions.

What is most impressive about the new work is the novelistic complexity of Barney’s implied narratives, as in the magnificent and disconcerting The Real Estate Office, 1992. The real-estate office in question is a wood-paneled, very upscale one with a suitably dark and unreadable, old-masterish oil painting hanging in the background. To the left a marble bust looks on impassively, while to the right, a man in a white shirt sits behind a desk absorbed in work, a phalanx of Rolodexes before him. Everything about this backdrop suggests stability and tradition, but what is going on in the foreground is completely jarring. At center stage a woman is answering the phone. The flex of the phone cord traverses the entire left half of the image diagonally, and just behind it stands a woman in a flame-red dress and matching hat, her mouth agape in surprise or shock. She seems to be moving toward the woman on the phone, as if to interrupt the call. The disjunction between this enigmatic, soap-operatic drama and the calm, formal setting sets up rich, ambiguous resonances.

Disjunction might be said to be Barney’s central theme. It is even present in a tender study of Chuck Close and his family at ease in a garden filled with great masses of flowers. It would be a conventional idyll were it not for the fact that Close’s daughter stands in the foreground with head lowered so that her black riding hat, occupying the dead center of the composition, partially obscures our view of her father. This note of visual dissonance, which a less adventurous photographer would have taken pains to avoid, both enhances the tenderness of the scene and saves it from sentimentality.

The Young Men, 1992, is something of an essay on the subject of the photographer’s relationship to her subjects. In this case her subjects appear not to be cooperating, but Barney uses even this to great advantage. There are three young men, all dressed in very similar sports jackets and chinos, disposed about a pristinely white room. One is standing with his back to the camera, apparently staring at a spot on the wall; another is seated with his hand over his face, while the third stands in profile, nervously tugging at his car. The composition seems to parody the process by which a photographer will induce the subject to relax in the presence of the camera and so appear “natural.” The attempt to deny the fact that they are being photographed only emphasizes the presence of the camera. By fastening on such moments, Barney manages to make trenchant comments on both the social situations and the nature of the art she practices.

John Ash