On ViewTanya Bonakdar Gallery
March 4–April 22, 2023
Throughout her long career, photographer Uta Barth has probed the limits of human perception through deceptively simple imagery. Sheer curtains, glass pitchers, or bare tree branches are only ostensible subjects, conduits for an ongoing examination of what is her primary implement: light. Her current show at Tanya Bonakdar includes selections of the artist’s work from over the past quarter-century, evincing her distinction as an emissary of light.
The exhibition begins on the ground floor of the gallery with a series, “…from dawn to dusk” (2022), made at the Getty Research Institute in California. The laborious project involved extreme patience on the part of Barth who, for two days of every month over the course of a year, photographed the same location at the Getty every five minutes from daybreak to dusk. Selections of these images (seven of the twelve months are represented in this installation) are arranged in grid formations on the walls of the gallery, some in crisp focus and others mysteriously blurred and obscured. In the grouping, …from dawn to dusk (December), the seven photographs are naturalistically rendered, where the viewer is able to trace the sweep of sunlight throughout the course of the day not only over the sharp lines and right angles of the Richard Meier-designed architecture of the building, but also the craggy, dramatic rock formations of the California horizon in the distance. In a different cluster representing the month of July, nearly all the images are bleached out to almost total whiteness, a reckoning with the blistering summer sun. Most intriguing is the collection of images that derive from the month of February, which have embedded within them a slow-moving timelapse video that cycles through shifts in light and color in an understated progression, rewarding the assiduous observer. As a whole, the body of work operates as a gradual sundial, one that records time slowly, over a year rather than daily.
On the gallery’s second floor, a wide-ranging collection of Barth’s earlier photographs unveil a framework for the “…from dawn to dusk” series, with sustained attention to perception and time, filtered through ethereal light. Reverberations of the suggested sundial motif downstairs resonate, perhaps most pointedly in images from a series called “Sundial” (2007–08), where Barth captured sunlight moving across the bare white walls of her own home. One diptych portrays changing patterns of sun and shadow in the corner of a room where a water pitcher and a blue glass drinking cup sit on a side table, nearly out of the frame but making their presence known in spectral shapes projected onto the wall.
Another sequence of four images, Sundial (07.6) (2007) follows light elsewhere in the room, its color morphing from a clear white, to a sickly green, to a gangrenous charcoal, before shifting once again back to white. Barth ministers to this evolution of the light, and its residual telling of the passing of time, as a nurse might tend a wound, beginning and ending this sequence with the pristine brilliance of early morning sunlight—a fresh, clean bandage, tenderly applied. Again, a simple household object, in this case, an oviform light fixture, hovers at the edge of, or just outside the frames, inserting itself through its shadows on the wall. This same light fixture also makes an appearance in an early image, Ground #44 (1994) which arrests the viewer almost immediately upon reaching the second floor. Barth’s image is nearly empty, the camera’s eye trained on the naked wall, with the light fixture hovering off to the left side, one tip partially clipped off by the frame. The hanging lamp provides the only shot of color—a pale, honey-colored hue—and also a focal point that cues the viewer into the fact that the photograph is out of focus. Meditating on this hanging orb, one experiences a visual version of semantic satiation, the phenomenon of a common word becoming strange or alien the more one dwells upon it. Although in this case, it’s the perception of the light fixture that changes, the little globe becoming a UFO glimpsed through a hazy sky. Is it there, or isn’t it? Nothing seems certain anymore.
Many series of Barth’s work induce this sensation, the material and average becoming supernatural and strange. We stand before an untitled diptych from the series “… and to draw a bright white line with light” (2011), where the artist diligently documented the change in shadows and highlights as the sun passed through sheer white curtains. The surface shapes, straightforward at first, soon become something else, apparitions reminding us that mystery still exists in the world if we allow it to reveal itself through patient looking, listening, sensing. Our insights, our experiences, our words all have the capacity to become delightfully strange. In this way, Barth’s work is illuminating. Illuminating, illumination, luminescence. Luminescence, incandescence. Light, light, light.