Thomas Barrow, Stylistic Drift @Derek Eller

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 photographic works (10 single images and 1 diptych), framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are gelatin silver prints with spray paint, some with attached Polaroid prints, made between 1977 and 1989. Physical sizes are roughly 16×20 or 20×24 (or reverse) (the diptych is roughly 16×40), and all the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Following up on a broad survey exhibit of Thomas Barrow’s photography in this same space in 2013 (reviewed here), this show takes a deep dive into one of the artist’s lesser known bodies of work, a selection of overpainted photograms made in the late 1970s and 1980s. Given our current preoccupations with extending photography in various interdisciplinary directions as well as the visual discussions surrounding the ongoing evolution of a digital aesthetic, these works seem surprisingly prescient, in that they tackle variants of these same questions far in advance of the explorations, experiments and extensions now taking place.

Barrow’s photograms start with dense gatherings of source material – newspaper clippings, book pages, found photographs, charts, graphs, filmstrips, and measuring devices (rulers and the like), all laid down in negative white on black layers. Unlike a Rauschenberg rebus, these agglomerations seem less about deciphering the clever connections between the selected objects and articles and more about creating an overall sense of machined information flow, a pre-Internet scientific overload of data, with a dash of pop culture to add to the distraction. Barrow has then sprayed stenciled titles across the photograms in bright automotive paint, creating fuzzed gradients of color (often with drips and splatters) that wash across the imagery underneath, the letters forming obtuse words and phrases drawn from scientific texts, like Rain Theory, Chaotic Fibrillations, Strange Attraction, and Stylistic Drift (the title of the show). He has then gone on to interrupt this aesthetic with stapled on Polaroids, introducing warmer personal items like a black cat or a coffee mug into the otherwise impersonal torrent of information.

While there are some distinct elements that boldly upend the compositions now and then, Barrow’s use of the photogram process feels more like an approach to pattern inversion rather than a formal exercise, allowing the texts to flip tonalities and reverse directions, making the already arcane even more puzzlingly unknowable. The result is a set of all over compositions that are full of collisions and overlaps; with the addition of the physicality of the painted titles and the Polaroids, the image density piles up even further into a complexly disorienting river of textures and associations.

The fact that these works get beyond the simple three dimensionality of a photographic image/object and instead employ a combination of techniques to test the usual boundaries of the medium takes them more toward an innovative kind of sculptural image collage. For those exploring the white space of contemporary digital image hybrids of various kinds, these decades old analog constructions may unexpectedly reveal some paths already smartly bushwhacked.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at either $8000 or $8500, with the diptych at $12000. Barrow’s work has very little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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