New York

Uta Barth

Bonakdar Jancou Gallery

From the beginning of her career, critics have focused on the surface qualities of Uta Barth’s photographs to treat them as a form of nouveau Pictorialism. Aspects of the work are certainly complicit with this reading, notably the indistinct, evanescent imagery and the tactile surfaces of the matte prints, which give the suggestion of looking through a layer of wax. Barth, on the other hand, has presented her work as a conceptually oriented investigation of the nature of perception vis-à-vis the manner in which we make images of the world, and the four large diptychs and one massive triptych that made up the bulk of her recent exhibition bear out her view. These pictures—each employing one or more relatively simple procedures involving scale, position, camera movement, nonstationary subject, or focus—have been boiled down to an almost typological study of how the photographic apparatus orients and disorients the viewer.

The recent untitled works present themselves less as objects than did earlier series—gone are the thick wood-panel supports—and the simpler frames and more recognizable imagery put them securely within a photographic tradition. Barth’s use of light has also undergone a significant shift. Where previously she utilized reflections and incandescent light to achieve abstract atmospheric effects reminiscent of the German Zero or American Light and Space artists, the new works make subtle use of natural lighting. They draw on the picturesque tradition, on works that aspire to what the artist calls “a certain kind of idealized beauty in nature, pictures that are picture perfect, pictures about other pictures.”

The most affecting piece on view, a dramatic triptych that nearly filled one wall of the gallery’s new space, depicts a rolling, rather barren landscape that seems typical of the western United States. The focus in the left-hand panel is on a blackmetal strip in the extreme foreground, so that it’s clear we are looking through a picture window. What separates this work from something like John Pfahl’s “Picture Windows” series is that the close focus not only blurs the scenic hills in the background, but droplets of mist coating the glass create a strong surface texture that further obscures the landscape. The image in the adjacent panel, the middle of the triptych, was framed by merely shifting the camera slightly to the right, offering a more conventional landscape view with a bush in the foreground and a hill behind, without the perception of a mediating surface. Then Barth has left an expanse of blank wall, a caesura slightly smaller than the individual photo panels. In traversing it, one becomes acutely aware of looking at nothing, highlighting the act of perception itself as well as of one’s own movement and the passage of time. This factor becomes crucial in the third panel, an image identical to the middle one but distorted and blurry. Barth has not altered the camera’s focus; the effect results from the mist seen in the earlier images thickening to the point that it radically alters the view of the landscape. At the same time, the gap has underlined how this moodily romantic image is not simply the documentation of nature but a calculated construct.

A nearby diptych operates in a similar manner, showing two views of a leafy grove. The right panel is larger in both size and scale, presenting a close-up of a section of one tree. In the left view, the background woods are in such sharp focus that we could be looking at a Neue Sachlichkeit image, but the leaves in the foreground are indistinct. Comparing the panels, it gradually becomes apparent that what looks out of focus is the effect of the leaves flickering in the wind—again a “natural” process manipulated by the artist for picturesque effect. These photos give vivid form to the overarching theme of Barth’s work: “How do I put something on the wall that presents certain kinds of problems without being like an ordinary picture.”

Andrew Perchuk