Friday, September 21, 2007

The Aristocracy's New Clothier

Lavish, indeed extravagant, words have been used to characterize the photographs of Tina Barney, whose work is currently on view at Gallery 339 in Philadelphia through October 27th. Barney has been called a “chronicler of upper crust society,” cited as an “anthropologist,” and anointed a maker of “cultural artifacts.”

The irony here – wholly unintended on the part of the photographer – is that hers is an impoverished vision rooted in wealth.

Much has been made of Barney’s insider look at well-heeled friends and relatives, yet most of her subjects come off as ordinary and uninteresting. Apart from the stylish trappings visible in many of the images, Barney's circle are truly sphinxes without a secret. If her intention were in effect to say, look, without their clothes and their environments these people are just like you, it seems an enormous amount of effort in aid of little or no insight. If, on the other hand, her intention was to draw attention to differences, the results are literally superficial.

Typical is the picture Marina and Peter, 1997, featuring a sullen-looking young woman in jeans and a tank top, cigarette in hand, standing next to a glum middle-aged man dressed in a pin-striped shirt and tie and leaning on the bed in front of them. Are they father and daughter (likely) or lovers (unlikely)? Whatever their relationship, in the end the picture succeeds in only conveying the subjects’ exasperation and impatience with being photographed. Suggestions that Barney’s unique access to her subjects’ private lives permits her to penetrate their inner sanctums are really beside the point. Having arrived there, what she shows us is nothing of consequence.

The fourteen images in the Philadelphia show entitled World Stage are drawn from three distinct bodies of work: upper crust family and friends from the Northeastern United States(4); aristocratic Europeans (8); and images from Barney’s recent work in China (2). The title is yet another example of word inflation when it comes to Barney's work given how much geography is omitted here to say nothing of classes. Of the three groups, the home grown images remain Barney’s best-known works. These as well as her decade spent photographing affluent Europeans have been described as “chilly depictions” of aristocratic life, but they are so utterly lacking in depth of feeling or expression that whatever chill may have infiltrated the space is quickly taken off by the hot air of hype.

Apart from a few single environmental portraits Barney’s photographs straddle the line between staged tableaux and moments glimpsed without ever plumbing either tradition. Unlike the elaborately planned, painstakingly executed and art historically self-conscious works of Jeff Wall, with whom she is sometimes compared, Barney’s casual arrangements offer up far more aimless standing around than stagecraft. Indeed, her disengaged subjects are often stuck smack dab in the middle of the frame, awkwardly acknowledging the presence of the photographer and looking uninterested in the proceedings.

These images are far too self-consciously presented ever to be confused with snapshots, and too intellectually lazy to be compared with more thoughtful work. What they have in common with the output of many practitioners today is their enormous size, which seems to have been dictated here by the notion that large prints are possible rather than meaningful. According to the gallery’s web site, three editions measuring either 24X30, 30X40 or 48X60 inches are available for a few of the images, while the latter two sizes are available for all the rest. Naturally, the price of each varies in proportion to its measurements.

In the end, banality at any size is still banality.