Uta Barth at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and 1301PE

Uta Barth, Untitled (10.3), 2010, mounted color photographs, framed, 1 panel 41 x 46 inches, 1 panel 41 x 32 inches, edition 1 of 6, 2, Courtesy of 1301PE and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

Uta Barth: Figure/Ground, Figure/Ground

Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and 1301PE, Los Angeles
Through July 16, 2022

Written by David S. Rubin
As a prelude to Uta Barth’s forthcoming retrospective at The Getty Center, slated to open in November 2022, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and 1301PE have collaborated on a small career-spanning survey that provides a solid introduction to the artist’s work of the past five decades. Curated by writer Jan Tumlir, the exhibition is divided into two sections, with Barth’s figurative photos featured at Bonakdar and her non-figurative works on view at 1301PE. The exhibition also informs us about Barth’s influences by including documentation and a few actual works by John Cage, Harry Callahan, Robert Irwin, Agnes Martin, Barth’s former student David Horvitz, and filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, whose movie BLOW-UP (1966) plays on a monitor.

As the curator acknowledges, labeling Barth’s work “figurative” or “non-figurative” is somewhat misleading, in that when a figure or object is represented, it is usually fragmented or obscured, and most of the imagery lies somewhere in the middle zone between “figure” and “ground,” a dichotomy with ties to Barth’s 1990s series Ground and Field, two defining bodies of work that are on view at 1301PE. In Ground #7, #11, and #13 (1992-93), Barth photographed details of sky, open landscape, and foliage with a slightly distorted focus as a conceptual ploy to suggest that what we are looking at are backgrounds, scenic backdrops to figurative subjects that have left the scene. Field (1998), a larger scale and more blurred image of what appears to be landscape with a section of architecture simulates the effect of seeing with our eyes in motion.

Beyond facilitating understanding of these seminal works, concentrating too much on the curatorial concept of whether a work is more figurative or “grounded” only detracts from our appreciation of other aspects of Barth’s oeuvre that are worth contemplating, such as ideas about temporality and the fleeting nature of things or questions about the verisimilitude of our perceptions. In the diptychs From “nowhere near” Untitled (nw18) (1999) and Untitled (05.8) (2005), also at 1301PE, Barth presents differing views of single subjects: a tree and a telephone pole seen through her living room window in the former and a vase of flowers with fallen petals on a table in the latter. By juxtaposing variations of like images photographed with differing vantage points or degrees of clarity, the artist reminds us that things are constantly changing from one moment to the next, and that one person’s visual truth is usually not the same as another’s. In the multi-panel work white blind (bright red) (02.7) (2002), Barth sets up visual interactions that produce after images, utilizing a variety of techniques to render the same view of trees through the window in various colors and densities, ranging from hazy and near grayscale to highly saturated black and vibrant red.

In the same gallery, a more recent diptych and a related single-panel work reveal that Barth’s interests eventually shifted towards imagery that seems less conceptual and even lyrical. In her series . . . And to draw a bright white line with light (2011), undulating horizontal bands of white light seen through curtain folds ripple before our eyes like broad abstract expressionist brushstrokes, only they are white on white. When viewing these works, one cannot help but feel an uplifting emotional surge.

Barth’s interest in photographing abstractions formed by light, which reflects her admiration for the California Light and Space movement, can actually be traced to photos taken earlier in her career that are in the installation at Bonakdar Gallery. One Day, 1979-82 (2010) is composed of a lateral sequence of eleven photographs that were shot on a single day between 1979 and 1982 (and reprinted in 2010). In each photo, the artist’s lower legs are visible at the top of the composition, with sunlight filtering in through a doorway to cast a dramatic shadow of her body enveloped by bright light. Taken together, the photos document the shifts in light throughout the course of a day, phenomena that Claude Monet similarly observed in his Impressionist paintings of haystacks and Rouen Cathedral. During the same period that she printed these photos, Barth also created a related series of untitled diptychs that juxtapose images of her feet and shadow interacting with patterns of a street or sidewalk and views of sky seen through trees. In showing the ground below her and the sky above, these pairings call attention to the artist’s position in space while taking the photos.

Although Barth’s face is included in two early works on view at Bonakdar, the artist’s presence in the majority of her photos is merely hinted at, because she uses her body as a tool in directing our eyes to ephemera. It could be a fragment of anyone’s arm, in fact, that is visible in the Deep Blue Day series of 2012. In these breathtaking images, the rhythmic bands of light from the . . . And to draw a bright white line with light series have become revelatory visions, the spectacular luminous reveals of the simple act of manipulating a curtain.

Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
1010 N. Highland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90038

6150 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90048

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