New York

Barbara Ess

Barbara Ess’ dreamlike photographic images—made with the most primitive of cameras (a pinhole camera), then enlarged and printed in delicate monochromes—are immediately compelling. We see a white dove’s rosy wing, its feathers opened like a hand, diaphanous folds of cloth, and a patch of floral carpet illumined in green, soft as an exhalation. These images possess a clairvoyant, peripheral-visionary intelligence; some are as indelible as those from one’s own dreams.

The word “duvetyn” (the name of a soft fabric with a twill weave used in downquilts) seems to serve as a tutelary daimon for the show. Following the title is a condensed etymology of the Indo-European root of duvetyn, “dheu.” This root is the base of a wide variety of derivatives, beginning with the meaning “to rise in a cloud” as dust or vapor, and including types of breath (vaporous, sometimes visible) and spirit. Other points along the historical trail of the root include the words deer, dust, down, dusk, deaf, dumb, dove, and dwell.

Ess is drawing the comparison with words to suggest an etymology of images, as if one might trace related images back to their original root or etymon, the “true image,” and in the process, uncover the relations among them. This process would include archetypes and symbolism, but not be exhausted by them. It would draw on the accumulated histories of images, as if every image carried within it the record of every time it has been seen, imagined, or used.

In the four close-up images of folded cloths, these glowing white duvetyn forms seem animated, as if they concealed living beings. To the left is the other primary source image, the dove’s wing in flight. One is reminded of Medieval iconography, where the dove often represented the “ministering wind” of the Holy Spirit, or symbolized the soul.

There were two more images of doves, printed onto small, down-filled pillows, like theriomorphic dream talismans. On the reverse sides of the pillows were printed texts drawn from Freud’s controversial case-study A Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, 1905. Dora’s first dream and Dora’s second dream were uninterpreted, quoted like images. After a while, it became clear that all of the other images in this room—a homey embroidered house, a diptych depicting a woman, hands crossed over her breasts like wings that recalled Hannah Wilke’s work—related to Dora’s dreams.

Picking up on Dora’s second dream, in which she is trying to get to the train station, the show concludes with a 5-minute-and-40-second videotape, based on the climactic scene from Michael Powell’s 1951 film The Red Shoes, in which the ballerina runs down a metal staircase, across a yard, and leaps off a balustrade to her death on the train tracks below. The constituent elements are pulled apart and rearranged to uncover the unconscious of the images. The sound of birds chirping begins faintly and builds gradually until it overwhelms the image. The running legs of the ballerina become the fluttering wings of a bird, and when she flies from the balustrade, a cloud of vapor rises from below.

Following the big retrospective of her work at the Queens Museum last year, Ess might have been expected to slack off a little in this new show. Instead, she’s struck out into yet another frontier of the phantasm.

—David Levi-Strauss