Barbara Ess, Lunatic(k) @3A

JTF (just the facts): A photo and film installation consisting of four works:

  • 1 archival inkjet print mounted on aluminum, dated 2011. The work measures 24 x 32 inches and is available in an edition of 4 + 1AP.
  • 1 diptych, dated 2018, comprising 2 archival inkjet prints—one of them embellished with a strand of the artist’s hair—individually framed in white. The inkjet prints measure 14 x 11 inches framed and 11 x 14 inches framed respectively. The work is available in an edition of 3 + 1AP.
  • 1 split-screen video, dated 2018, consisting of 2 one-minute video loops (both 2008) playing side by side.
  • A folded handout with a quote from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1871) and reproductions of two of Ess’s photographs

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Since the 1980s—when she first emerged on New York’s downtown art scene as a photographer, a bass player for the no-wave band Y Pants, and an editor of the mixed-media publication Just Another Asshole—Barbara Ess has used lo-tech methods to work against the grain of comfort and convention. “My camera distorts and I like that,” she told journalist Kristine McKenna in 1991. “I like distortion in music too because it loosens things up.”

Ess is best known for her haunting pinhole photographs from the 1980s and ’90s: vortices of blurred forms sharpening at their centers to reveal such vivid and unlikely subjects as a magazine image of a ziggurat; a snake winding its way across a living room floor; and her own legs stretched out against the backdrop of a quiet lake. Borrowing equally from Victorian Pictorialist photography and 1960s experimental film, they give visual form to the psychic borderland between self and the world. Since the 2000s, she has produced still and moving digital images that likewise straddle interior and exterior realities.

The motif of splitting—in the sense of dividing, but also, perhaps, in the sense of becoming estranged from, or even informing on—carries Ess’s terrific installation of recent work at 3A Gallery. The show opens with a video still of the moon, which has become separated from its aura, the result of a mysterious digital interaction between Ess’s video camera and her telescope.

The moon is traditionally associated with madness, the subject of a diptych on an adjacent wall. The diptych’s left-hand photograph reproduces a page from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1871) that features a theory favored by Sir James Crichton-Browne, MD, linking a curly hair to lunacy. To the right of this photograph is another, a self-portrait, to which the artist has defiantly attached a lock of her own wavy tresses.

A video playing on the monitor opposite pairs two 1-minute films from a series Ess made in the late 2000s. On the right-hand side of the screen is a glitchy view of windblown vegetation set to to the music of the death-metal band Slayer. On the left-hand side of the screen is a sequence of clips of rapidly moving objects—trains, cars, and a spinning disc. The final clip, taken through the window of Ess’s car, shows a highway at night. If you listen carefully, you can hear the turn signal as she waits, neither quite in the world nor quite out of it, for a break in the traffic.

Collector’s POV: The archival inkjet print on aluminum is priced at $8000 and the diptych at $6500. The price of the video is available on request. The handout is free. Ess’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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