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Artist Profiles

September /Uta Barth- Blurred Reality

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Uta Barth was born in 1958 in Berlin, Germany and currently lives in Los Angeles, California. Her work is represented by the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, and ACME in Los Angeles. Her photographs have been included in group shows at the Whitney and Guggenheim museums in New York, the Tate Modern Museum in London and the J. Paul Getty Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.  In addition to several solo exhibitions, her work has been shown throughout the world including Japan, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Spain and Brazil as well as  throughout the United States. (Images are courtesy of Uta Barth, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and ACME, Los Angeles.)

Uta Barth is a photographer who is self-possessed of a sensibility that has much in common with abstract painting.  In viewing her art it is, at times, pleasantly difficult to keep in mind that she is a photographer.  However, despite the blurred focus technique, most of the subject matter is more or less recognizable and so objective reality is never completely abandoned.  What helps in imagining these photographs as paintings is their overt subjectivity as informed by the treatment of the subject matter. This clash between objective and subjective realities and how the latter ultimately wins out is crucial for understanding this work.

The place to begin is with Barth’s methodology of throwing the subject matter out of focus. In most of the work this is applied overall and in lesser hands would quickly dissolve into a tiresome gimmick. However, Barth is

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Field #19, 1996, Color photograph on panel, Edition of 8, 23 x 28 3/4 inches

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Ground (95.6), 1995, Color photograph on panel, Edition of 8, 20 x 17 inches

masterful in the variety and intelligent approach she applies to it. Take for example Ground (95.6) where a group of leaves in the upper right corner retains sharp focus but everything else is considerably blurred.  On one hand the combination creates an ambiguous sense of space.  The undefined horizon in the background could be miles or meters away.  On the other, because everything but the leaves is out of focus the background is evenly flattened out. The result is to challenge the depth of space so that the leaves and background appear to occupy nearly the same place on the picture plane. Yet intellectually you know this is not true and are left to reconcile the visual contradictions. This simultaneous push-pull of space bears some similarity to what Cézanne achieved; particularly in his landscape paintings.

Another significant aspect to Barth’s photography is the way in which she trains her camera on what initially appears as empty space.  What little imagery does appear is rendered to the periphery and this supports the establishment of a soft focus emphasis on a void.  But is this actually the case?  Look at Ground #30 where the soft definition of the corner and floor

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of a room along with a window and corresponding shadow define the space Most of this real estate is consumed by the light color of the back wall.  The initial reference is the corner of a room but this gives way to Barth’s real concern which is light and shadow on an equal footing with space.

While Barth’s work is reductive she is no Minimalist given the sensual treatment that is part and parcel of her approach.  Freed of direct figurative narrative that is inherently part of the photography, the artist is able to apply an abstract painter’s vision to the work that features a preoccupation with basic elments. A good example is the color and the handling of Ground #42 where a lush soft hue radiates an ambiguous mixture of blue and green.  The two little pictures on the wall and the barest inclusion of a chest of drawers are just enough to establish the composition while providing a perfect dose of visual tension. Beyond that, your eye drops freely into the magnificent expanse of indefinable color.

Ground #42, 1994, Color photograph on panel, 11 1/4 x 10 1/2 inches

All of this speaks directly to the content of the work which simply stated is that Uta Barth makes the mundane beautiful and extraordinary. Through the proxy of her camera she turns her eye to routine, everyday places and celebrates their possibilities. A non-descript apartment interior is dominated by what the artist really wants you to see. Light (and resulting shadows) from a

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Field #8, 1995, Color photograph on panel, Edition of 8, 22 x 28 3/4 inches

window hitting the wall and floor transforms a utilitarian space into a spectacular collection of forms, patterns and color. Or consider an exterior view ascaptured in Field #24 which suggests a non-specific ‘tunnel’ of light, shadow and space. Barth’s even blurring of the forms democratically

Ground #30, 1994, Color photograph on panel, 22 x 18 inches

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Untitled (98.1), 1998, Diptych, Framed color photographs, Edition of 5, each 41 x 51 1/2 inches

renders everything to the same focal plane with only the receding lines of perspective to indicate depth of space. Thus a pedestrian scene is transformed into a vision that is dramatic, ambiguous and mysterious.

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Untitled (nw 1) from nowhere near, 1999, Diptych, Framed color photographs, Edition of 4, Each 35 x 44 inches, Overall 35 x 90 inches

In the end, the meaning and magic of these photographs is to engage your eye in a heightened notice of the world around you.  In other words, subject matter for Uta Barth is secondary compared with how it is seen. Her vision, as expressed in her photographs, invites you to do the same.

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Ground #78, 1997, Chromogenic print on panel, 41 x 39 inches

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