For her eponymous exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, photographer Uta Barth created a new body of work entitled …and to draw a bright white line with light (2011). The photographs depict a wavy line made as light passes through the curtains in the artist’s home. Barth noticed this by chance and realized that by moving the gossamer fabric she could in effect “draw with light,” literalizing the Latin origin of the word photograph.
The …and to draw series consists of individual works that vary between single panels and diptychs (there is also a triptych from the series that is not on view) that are hung in a low continuous frieze that winds through the exhibition space. The installation leads around a corner and to an earlier series, Sundial (2007) also shot in the artist’s home. Outside the Bucksbaum Gallery in the grotto-like subdivision of the Modern Wing’s lobby is a three-panel piece, Sundial (07.1) and three selections from another series, White Blind (Bright Red) 2002.
In her lecture at the exhibition’s opening, Barth named her main influences: not other photographers, but Robert Irwin, Brian Eno and John Cage, “who understood that in order to talk about silence you have to bracket it with sound.” Looking at …and to draw, a sound wave is what unavoidably comes to mind. The rippling band of white against the gray background, coupled with the grid pattern of the curtain’s weave, makes the work look like a screen grab from a sound editing program. The panels, which are spaced very closely together, form what looks like a timeline or a graph.
The motif of the wavering line is carried into the vinyl decal that covers the floor-to-ceiling windows in the adjacent reading room. A narrow band, like the beam of light in the photos, is cut through the white adhesive vinyl, allowing just a sliver of the outside world through. This was the artist’s idea for the reading area and I can’t decide if it’s an interesting approach to exhibition design or an incredibly cheesy move that threatens to undermine everything. It is probably a little of both.
Uta Barth. German, born 1958. ... and to draw a bright white line with light (Untitled 11.8), 2011. Inkjet print, 37 x 56 in. Courtesy of the Artist; 1301 PE, Los Angeles; and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © Uta Barth, Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and 1301PE, Los Angeles.
Unfortunately the centerpiece of the exhibition accounts for the least captivating of the work on view. It is so monotonous and repetitive that it doesn’t incite a negative response but almost no response at all. The selections on view illustrate the very precarious nature of a reductive approach to image making. “I am a person who can spend an incredible amount of time sitting in one place staring at blank space. This is very much my process in the studio,” said Barth during her lecture. She states that the content of her work is perception. So in her photographs she is inviting the viewer to join her in staring for long periods of time at nearly empty space. In the Sundial series this is an offer I am quite willing to accept.
In the three works from Sundial (07.14, 07.2 and 07.5, respectively) that accompany …and to draw in the main gallery the artist’s living room is seen at sunset, as harsh light and long shadows are cast across empty walls. Parts of lamps and other furniture clue us into the domestic context. The images alternate between positive and negative exposures. The photographs in positive are warm whites and grays tinged rose and cream. But those that are in negative and have been manipulated in the dark room sport muddy grays, rust browns, mold greens and golden yellows. In these manipulated images the space reads very differently as well. Shadows change from being cast across flat surfaces to describing crevices, corners and obtuse angles. In Sundial 07.14 the periwinkle blue of the couch cushions just barely peeking in from the bottom edge of one of the panels activates the entire composition’s reverse color scheme.
It is the triptych from the Sundial series out in the lobby, though, that best demonstrates the reward in studying a white wall. Each of the three panels depict the same t-shaped shadow that starts starkly defined and black at the top of the composition but quickly evaporates into mist as it moves down the image. Here Barth is most successful in dealing with visual perception, in getting the viewer to look rather than think about what is being looked at. The complex transformation of space occurring in these pictures is almost Greenbergian. At the top, the plane of the wall is the same as the picture plane, but as the shadow dematerializes, the wall ceases to be a plane at all and becomes atmospheric. Additionally, the subtle coloration plays an integral role. In intently staring at what appear to be three gray, white and black photographs, millions of colors emerge: blues, pinks, oranges, browns and yellows. Sometimes repetitive photographs of nothing are actually exciting.
-Erik Wenzel, Senior ArtSlant Staff Writer
Erik Wenzel is an artist living and working in Chicago.
(Image at top right: Uta Barth. German, born 1958. ... and to draw a bright white line with light (Untitled 11.3), 2011. Inkjet print, 37 x 56 in. Courtesy of the Artist; 1301 PE, Los Angeles; and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © Uta Barth, Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and 1301PE, Los Angeles.)