Exhibition Review: Uta Barths
…to walk without destination and see only to see
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. 521 West 21srt Street. 212 414 4144. http://www.tanyabonakdargallery.com
May 6 – June 19, 2010
Barth’s work, in very general terms, explores the delicate nuance in the way a place is seen. Previous bodies of work show, in a fragmented way, places both indoor and out; including street scenes, bookcases, window sills and room corners. Not paying too much attention to a particular object in the space, her work more concerns itself with tracing light and subtle movement across varied spatial planes. I found an interview online between her and Sheryl Conkelton, from a 1996 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Art, where she is discussing her works entitled “Ground,” and “Field” which were interiors and exterior, respectively. Barth talks about how the work that ushered forth these bodies finally did what she had wanted work to do for a long time, which was “…quite literally inhabit the space between the viewer and the piece hanging on the wall and they do transfer one’s visual attention beyond the edges of the picture…” http://jca-online.com/barth.html.
What is interesting to me in reading this just after seeing her current show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery is that she has literally gone outside with her camera after 10 years of photographing exclusively in her house, bringing the experience of her walk out into the world, into perspectives shown in diptychs and triptychs on the gallery wall. The 41 x 32 in prints hang nicely in aluminum frames and provide context of definitive experience beyond the frame. In almost all sequences, a picture of Barth’s legs and/or feet sit next to the picture or pictures of a tree. She shoots the foliage while looking up, using extremely shallow depth of field and the backgrounds almost entirely white and blown out. The faint suggestion of color provides evidence of the branches extending upwards, but what is concretely tangible only occupies a small fraction of the frame. In one image, none of the tree is in focus and the image in fact looks badly pixellated or distorted. I felt frustrated with this as the other images fall off so gracefully and are formally sound. I also felt like I didn’t want to constantly see the tips of her shoes in the bottom of the frame. The suggestion of position through her shadow works well enough and I felt the feet were helpful compositionally only in one or two of the pieces.
My favorite of the series is an outstanding diptych where there is a sidewalk seam that runs evenly diagonal along the frame, perfectly severing the long shadow of her legs. Her stance mimics the stick supporting the tree shown in the accompanying tree photograph. I enjoyed the completely in focus and flat focal plane of the leg images and the disparity between the flat looking down and the visually layered shots of sky and tree. In one image she uses a negative inversion of the image which, in my mind, further questions the relationship with space and reality.
What I love most about this show is that Barth is quite simply going on a walk to take these pictures and with no larger agenda, other than tracing the ephemeral nature of life, light and time. Perhaps it is just a great excuse to take pretty pictures of trees and the leg pictures thus evidence of the declared discursive purpose. I felt a small sense of joy when I read the press release and the theory of the “dérive” was left entirely out of a situation where it might have been tempting to use it. I’m saying this not because I find the concept entirely unappealing, but rather because I find myself annoyed with it’s constant use in art talk. I would much prefer to just take a walk with my camera, which is just what Uta did and for this, I would like to congratulate her. I also feel the meditative and quiet intention so poignant in her earlier work is picked up on in this series and continues with the suggestion of an unending threshold of life and space.
A series of previously unseen black and white photos taken 30 years back are in the back room of the gallery. Among others, there are images of snowy ground with trees pushed to the extremities of the frame, as well as a lovely series of shadows of bodies jutting forth from a door frame. These small square pictures compliment large color images in the main gallery by lending a sense of the trajectory of Barth’s work.