Uta Barth in a recent interview

“I keep trying to find ways to shift the viewer’s attention away from the object they are looking at,” offers Uta Barth in a recent interview, “and toward their own perceptual process in relation to that object” (Artlies #7, 1995). Barth has attempted to do so through a series of works produced over the past three years that are, simply put, out-of-focus photographs of barely discernible landscapes (Ground) and interiors (Field). These small Ektacolour prints mounted on thick wood panels are as physically obdurate as their imagery is ephemeral and multi-referential — the eye strains to fix an image. Barth’s stated interest in the process of perception over that of perception’s object is unintentionally coy, a diversion from what may be the real subject of her work. After all, can the two be separated without risk of a dry academicism around the aesthetics/politics of looking, of vision, a problem that has figured prominently in contemporary visual art of the last thirty years? Barth’s photographs are anything but dry and academically pedantic. Further, if the subject matter is really irrelevant, merely something ready at hand over which to drape the continuing analysis of perception — an unfocused camera readily aimed at anything in its path — why the interest in cataloguing — as many critics have done — the vaguely referred to or absent effect, the resultant image? It is, surely, because these are images of something, after all, and it is the space in between where Barth has staked her ground: between an unremitting beauty of affect — soft pastel colours and formalist shapes — and a theoretical exercise in vision, pictorial conventions and theory itself. Barth places emphasis not only on the relationships between object and perception, between painting and photography, but interestingly enough, between critical theory and pretty pictures. Barth’s work readily engages theory, anticipates it, even pictures it.

David A. Greene noted in a review (Los Angeles Reader, November 3, 1995) that photographic history — a history of photography that has set out to trouble vision and objectivity, to gender looking and to challenge modernist conceits of originality and gesture — tends to be skipped in accounts of Barth’s work in favour of its approximation of the look of painting. These arguments, however, are well rehearsed, and critics may be foregiven for not wanting to rehash them anew. As well, the engagement with critical theory vis-a-vis photography alone in Barth’s work is, to some extent, as illusive as are the backgrounds, the corners of rooms, the outdoors scenes she photographs. It is hard to pin anything down. It’s not really about gendered looking, nor is Barth’s work strictly about a relationship between painting and photography. Originality and gesture are fairly exhausted terms in contemporary art and there is no longer any real tension between objectivity and subjectivity. Yet they are all here in the Field series in suitably amorphous fashion and this goes a long way toward explaining how reviewer-friendly Barth’s work is. Field and Ground comfortably accommodate any number of poetically descriptive keywords of contemporary theoretical discourse and many of the reviews say the same thing. There is due service to the notion of perception and then an accounting of the many ambiguous allusions in her work: Minimalism in general, Anges Martin in particular, Gerhard Richter, and seventeenth-century Dutch painter Vermeer whose almost photographic studies of light bathed rooms did in fact inspire her series Ground. In this vein, one could add Impressionism’s studies of late nineteenth century Paris to her latest work that gives cinematic-like glimpses of modern cityscapes: blurred conflations of streets and building corners, a set of headlights caught on the periphery of vision through rain battered windshields, a rushing passerby and other eponymously defined exterior scenarios. In this light it would appear that what Barth is after is perhaps not so new; it is the conventions, as she has said, of how pictures are made, structured and composed.

X, Y, Z, and U art exhibition

X, Y, Z, and U art exhibition

And yet the work is engaging and there is more here than what diverts the eye. Field is indeed quotational, but not so much in how the series calls to mind an array of already existing images — the conventional postmodern artwork. Field quotes theory, it collages together and subtly veils beneath an out-of-focus photograph the various theoretical ideas that have shaped contemporary art. To drag out the familiar arsenal of postmodernist critical tools to situate the work would only be to lapse into a kind of deja-vu or, worse, parody. It would also mean stepping around the particular relationship between theory and images set up in Field and her previous work. The challenge for criticism is to account for this work in some way without falling into what may increasingly be seen as campy theoretical writing, already subject to parody. When physicist Alan Sokal wrote a parody of theory that was submitted to and published, in seriousness, in the journal Social Text last year, his point should be well taken. Theory may indeed, as someone has remarked, have taken over from Drag Queens — who have become serious pop icons — the baton of camp in Susan Sontag’s definition of it as failed seriousness. Ironically, and not parodically, Field suggests that critical theory may be in jeopardy of becoming nothing more than pretty pictures, aesthetic objects with no real social effect. Thus, Barth is not just self-referentially exploring conventions of image making — for how could one do so now without simultaneously invoking its attendant history and theory — but the theoretical discourses that have shaped images. It is a neat twist on the “image as text” theme: with photographic means and painterly affect, Barth suggests that the image is theory and that theory – aesthetic theory, social theory, critical theory, any of the multi-disciplinary theories brought to bear upon contemporary art – is an object of aesthetic delection, as untroubling, as easily consumed and almost as camp as a pleasing sunset.

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