New York

Uta Barth

In that never-never land between the sensuous purr of painting and the chilly idiom of photography, Uta Barth makes ethereal pictures (in fact photos) that delicately resist being arrested by the pictorial condition, yet somehow remain unrepentantly picturesque. Her perfectly blurred, cloyingly out-of-focus images obscure, yet politely demur from obliterating, an external referent. Her works offer only an oblique set of visual clues, identification of the essentially banal subject matter—which ranges from empty to almost empty interiors to specific domestic objects—is only momentarily suspended. What remains obscure is how the artist arrives at these panel-mounted Ektacolor prints: are these records of existing places, “documents” of specially constructed spaces, or did Barth lift pictures from various sources and then subject them to the now requisite ritual of rephotography? Do computers or digital imaging systems play a role or is the end result a product of basic camera-to-darkroom manipulation? While Barth takes full advantage of photography’s special ability to mask the vicissitudes of technical process, she also seems utterly enthralled with the idea that in visual ambiguity lies meaning, when it may only signal the idiosyncracy of her vision.

Seeming to rely on the assumption that many will find any type of fuzzily luminous picture intrinsically provocative, Barth displays a predilection for creating what might be called “the Vermeer effect,” and in at least one work (Ground #42, 1994) we are allowed to detect, through a misty bluish filter, reproductions of two of the Dutch master’s works hung quaintly side by side on a wall above a chest of drawers. In Ground #30, 1994, Vermeer’s central iconography and primary compositional structure is explicitly referenced: a ghostly white light emanates from a small window in the upper left, illuminating the unadorned corner of a room. While I’m hard-pressed to penalize anyone who turns to Vermeer for a formal model, or seeks to use his work to address the interplay between the languages and “effects” of painting and photography, there’s also some discomfort associated with celebrating the obvious esthetic appeal of Barth’s clever marriage of photography and painting.

Though the work of artists such as Gerhard Richter, Richard Prince, Troy Brauntuch, Barbara Ess, Ellen Carey, and Adam Fuss (to name but a few) could be cited as the formal/conceptual influence for an artist like Barth, I’m not convinced that Barth succeeds in constructing a particularly innovative kind of space, or that she pushes us to rethink the ideological status of the image, of representation and abstraction, or of the conditions of visual pleasure itself—even though traces of such thinking can be detected here.

Ever since Walter Benjamin put the fear of God into some nervous esthetes by making them believe that the photographic conditions of technologies of mass production would drive away the putative soul (i.e., the “aura”) of art, some artists have been moved (perhaps by unassuaged guilt) to prove that photography, itself, has as much “aura” as any other art form—as much as, say, painting. So while Barth has succeeded in manufacturing a coolly beautiful product that at least feels and looks like it has some “aura,” there ain’t much soul in it.

Joshua Decter