Blurring the Lines
For those of us with extreme myopia, the photographic work of Uta Barth strikes a familiar chord. "Blurry" is probably the most overused adjective when describing her images. Her photographs purposely avoid "subject" as she culls images from places ordinary and anonymous: Spartan interiors, unspectacular landscapes, banal buildings. With a body of work that moves from atmospheric to minimalist, Barth forces us to reassess the way we view photographs in two current exhibitions, "Uta Barth: In Between Places" at the Contemporary Arts Museum and "Uta Barth: 1991-1994" at Lawing Gallery.
The photographs -- in their compositional arrangements, their flat fields of color and their soft forms -- have qualities most often associated with painting. The blurred aspects of her Ground series have caused them to be likened to the photo-allusive paintings of Gerhard Richter, a comparison that holds up only in the most superficial sense. While Richter is trying to mimic the blur of a photograph (or, more specifically, a bad print of a photograph), Barth is using photography to capture the optical blur that happens within the eye of the viewer.
Viewing Ground #42 (1994) from a distance, you see an abstract composition with a field of aqua, two staggered rectangles in the upper left corner and a lighter bar running along the lower right. Upon closer inspection, you realize it is a hazily focused photograph of an aqua wall hung with two framed pictures. A chest of drawers barely intrudes into the lower corner. The arrangement works on a formal level with its composition and lush, luminous color, but the subtly perceived sense of place works on an intellectual and emotional level.
When she first began the Ground series, Barth would stand a subject in the foreground and focus on the figure. Then, before Barth took the photograph, the figure would step out of the image, leaving the focused foreground empty and the background softly indistinct. But the images are not about the absence of a figure, like some Stalinist photo retoucher has been at work, but about intangibles of place, form, light and feeling.
The effectiveness of Barth's work is not solely tied to an atmospheric blur. For and of time, the artist took photographs inside her own home, an absurdly immaculate, clean-lined and stark environment. A series of images shows the top edge of a yellow sofa against a white wall, with light and shadow playing across the surface. The sliver of couch along the bottom of the picture frame becomes almost anthropomorphic, slumping like a shoulder, or sometimes vaguely celestial, slightly rising and falling on the edge of the paper from image to image like a dawning and setting sun. Other photographs show sunlight striking a wood floor and rug in glowing geometric shapes. It's like making art while under house arrest. But is it surprisingly successful.
Four 1990 works are some of the least successful in the show. Untitled #11-14 pair painting with photos. Crisp black-and-white horizontal lines overwhelm the surface with an incessant optical flicker, while tiny square photographs marooned in the center try to draw the viewer forward. Move closer, and you are rewarded with dark, barely identifiable images of houses at night. The idea of juxtaposing a painted op-art element with the photographic isn't bad, but it just doesn't work here.
The diptych Untitled (98.4) (1998) is one of Barth's more focused landscape images. Two spindly trees stand in the foreground of the first image. In the second view, the artist has zeroed in on the space between the trees where their branches are touching. Scrutinizing the pair, you find the slight flurry of leaves appealing, but the whole thing doesn't possess the seductive pull of image found in her other work.
Barth's work from the early '90s hangs in the luminous white space of Lawing Gallery, where painted and photographed images are grouped together, playing off and commenting on each other. Scanning Untitled #16 (1994) from left to right, you start with two vibrating rectangles with graphic black and white lines. They lead you to an intense deep yellow panel with an image of a hand drawing curtains back on a field of color, as if to reveal the last scene -- a small square landscape. It's a misty, coolly romantic soft-focus image of trees and dramatic mountain peaks. Viewing the series of four works is like moving from a TV test pattern to the great outdoors. It's optically saturating stuff as Barth plays with your retinas as well as your expectations and associations. They are significantly more successful than the similar 1990 pieces at the CAM.
At her best, Barth uses the world around her to create images that transcend the world around her. It is an aesthetic that works well when you slip quietly into it but fails when it is too subtle or hermetic, keeping you on the other side, looking in but not engaged. A side effect of her work is that it attunes you to visual nuances in everyday life. You find yourself looking around, not at things but at the intersection between forms and light and color, conscious of the peripheral blur in your field of vision.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events