New York

Tracey Baran

Liebman Magnan

In her first exhibition, a year and a half ago, Tracey Baran located her photographic subject at the intersection of the social and the psychological. Portraying her own family and its disorderly wreck of a home somewhere in the low-rent backwaters of upstate New York—and acting as both participant and observing eye—Baran eschewed the reportorial melodrama of a Richard Billingham in favor of a more tight-lipped but also more forgiving sense of unease. What gave the pictures their force was the way they seemed to have been composed with the candor of a child who sees everything clearly because he or she hasn’t yet learned which details to consider too socially unacceptable to register.

Somehow, in the space of a year or so, the implicit viewpoint in Baran’s photographs has jumped ahead to the next phase: Now the eye is more like that of an adolescent than that of a child. There is a different kind of tension in the air, and it has a name: sex. Strangely, the resulting images are not more lurid or flamboyant, but the opposite—full of indirection, operating more by means of traces and hints than by direct presentation. There is a sort of pudeur at work here, producing unexpected moments of tenderness and edgy lyricism. Even Baran’s color has started to simmer, becoming more deeply suffused than her previous high-keyed contrasts.

And that sense of obliqueness, by the way, characterizes even the most blatant of these images in which there are people but no faces. Probably the most perfect of them is a close-up of a naked guy’s crotch and belly, both sticky wet with a reddish fluid. It takes maybe a minute to register that this is most likely menstrual blood, a conjecture pretty well confirmed by the title, Because I’m a Girl (all works 1999). Also confirmed by the title is the fact that the image, like the rest of the show, is as autobiographical as Baran’s earlier work. The photograph is a sort of indirect self-portrait. Or you might say that the man is a canvas, she’s the paint, and the picture is about the intersection of desire and danger (ask any anthropologist about menstrual blood . . . ), pride and embarrassment. Just the fact of there being a photograph of this moment reinforces the feeling that somewhere behind it lay a dare, however tacit.

More typical may be the work whose title has been extended to the exhibition as a whole: Give and Take. The couple stands off camera, but their shadow is thrown on a wall—another trace, more indirection. The man reaches out to touch the woman from behind, and the gesture could just as well be threatening as comforting—maybe both. My best guess, though, is that it’s mainly entreating. There’s a story in this picture, as there is in each one and in the group as a whole, but because of Baran’s ambig-uous position both inside the story and out, at an angle to the image and yet facing it straight on, it’s partly a story about not being able to pin down just what the story really is. That doesn’t make the work evasive. Just the opposite: Baran’s cool intelligence and unblinking tenderness inhabit that precise space between the clarity of an image and the messy welter of emotions it can register.

Barry Schwabsky