May 24, 2011

A ribbon runs through Barth’s exploration of photography

The term “photography” literally means “to draw with light.” Uta Barth’s latest series, and to draw a white line with light, premiering at the Art Institute along with two of her earlier series, examines the passage of time and furthers Barth’s perpetual investigation of perception. Barth is known for creating images that explore how vision works and how the human eye functions differently from the camera’s lens. In and to draw a white line with light, Barth took inspiration from a white ribbon of light that fell on a curtain in her Los Angeles home one day, continuing her exploration of the atmospheric and the incidental.

Barth’s series is successful in that it is presented, like much of her previous work, as a photographic installation. The large prints hang so that the ribbon of light grows larger if viewed from left to right and smaller if viewed from the other direction. The third panel features an image of the artist’s own hand, perhaps the first time Barth has ever allowed a trace of herself, other than a shadow, to appear in one of her images. The presence of her hand is remarkably necessary because it shows that Barth is in fact moving the curtain to manipulate the line of light. This is her way of being honest about the creation of her images and saying that she is the one responsible for creating this changing pattern of light. While she is drawing the curtains in and out, Barth is metaphorically “drawing with light” and using its properties of illumination and reflection to create a spectacle that is both mesmerizing and beautifully captured by her camera.

The series is accompanied by images from the 2002 series white blind (bright red) and the 2007 series Sundial. white blind (bright red) examines ideas of optical after-images, positive and negative relations of light, and optical illusions. Images in sets of four, five, and six from the white blind (bright red) series hang just outside the gallery displaying and to draw a white line with light. Images (both left alone and manipulated) of trees and the surrounding environment are an exercise in seeing. Stare at one image long enough, and when you move to the next, your eyes might not be ready to move on as they carry the previous image onto the next screen.

Barth’s Sundial series is another exercise in positive and negative space, but instead of after-images, it investigates the continual second glance and the challenge of forcing the eye not to settle on one single point of the image, refusing to find what Roland Barthes might refer to as a punctum, or blind spot. This is an evolved signature of Barth’s earlier, more blurred images of landscapes and settings. In one image, Barth’s shadow creeps in, and, in all of the images, reflections and projections in one image become refractions and shadows in another. The series continually praises light’s insatiable hunger for trickery and unpredictability.

The optical retention, after-images and peripheral, second glances in Barth’s earlier series, when presented next to and to draw a white line with light, are the perfect evidence for the artist’s evolution. It is an evolution that is celebrated in the presentation of her newest images, as the white ribbon they feature grows and dances across the walls, jumping from image to image, a magnificent choreography of nature interacting with texture and human creativity captured by technology.

In all three series, there is no apparent narrative or story Barth is trying to tell through the blandness of the color of the light. In taking meaning away from the images, she is simply showing and examining perception and the act of seeing, hoping that when the viewer leaves her images they will look at the world a little differently. After seeing the exhibit, light and all its tricks become more apparent: Sunbeams dance to a silent tune and headlights circle your room at night.