Tina Barney: Landscapes @Paul Kasmin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 color photographs, framed in dark grey and matted, and hung on three gray walls of the gallery. All of the works are chromogenic prints, dated 1988, 1989, or 2017. The prints are sized either 20×24, 30×40, or 48×60 inches, and are available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)

A retrospective monograph of the photographer’s work was recently published by Rizzoli (here).

Comments/Context: The places in Tina Barney’s modest show of landscapes are easier to recognize than the year—or even the decade—in which the photographs were taken. The rocky beaches and white clapboard architecture in several scenes are identifiable as coastal New England, one of the insular communities (along with Manhattan and the south shore of Long Island) that she has mapped often during her career and claimed as her own material and emotional territory.

The inhabitants that she depicts in these small towns (or is it one small town?) are mainly upper-middle class. They don’t appear to be suffering economically, at least not outwardly, or boasting about their prosperity either. Tennis is played on tree-shaded backyard courts; family sailboats line the docks in the harbors. The 4th of July is the most celebrated holiday here, observed with parades and picnics at which men and women pull out their Revolutionary War dress from closets and trunks. Only Ralph Lauren is as fond of the American flag as decorative element and winking cultural signifier as Barney.

When these photographs were made, though, is more baffling. I doubt anyone would be able to differentiate without a caption the five dated late ‘80s from the six dated last year. Fun Slide (2017), for instance, has the same palette (yellows and reds) and vernacular subject (an ocean-side amusement) that attracted many photographers in the ‘70s color who were enthused about color.  The short-skirted uniforms worn by the cheerleaders standing on the track in High School Band (2017) could be from the 1950s.

One reason for our temporal confusion is that landscapes are supposed to be “timeless.” Land, sea, sky, and weather predominate in all of these scenes. The other reason may be cultural: the people and things that populate Barney’s towns are averse to change, whether ostentatious or minimal. East Coast WASPS are like Iowa farmers: they don’t keep up with New York fashions or buy the newest model automobiles—and are proud of their willful disdain for such matters. Visual clues that in other places help us fix or approximate the time a photograph was taken are missing. If clusters of McMansions are springing up like toadstools on the Rhode Island shore—and in some zip codes they probably have over the last 30 years—Barney has chosen to ignore them. Her affectionate gaze is focused on a pace of life that is conservative with a small c.

Barney is renowned for her portraits, and for her studiously arranged interiors that enhance or contradict the expressions and gestures of the portrayed. But leafing through her excellent retrospective book, published last year by Rizzoli, I was surprised how often she has taken her 8×10 camera out of doors, into gardens and school yards, beside swimming pools and on to porches in these small East Coast towns.

What separates the photographs in her book from the ones in the show is her distance from people and things. There are no faces on individuals in these landscapes, only the movements of groups and crowds. The New England coast, having been settled since the early 17th century, has not been a wilderness in living memory. The socially designed landscape is therefore more pronounced than the untamed natural one.

Only three of the photographs here (Thunderstorm, 1988; Dusk, 1989; and The Rocks, 2017) acknowledge the superior power of the ocean and the sun. Water is nonetheless a motif is most of the pictures, either as the magnetizing foreground around which these communities continue to gather or as something glimpsed or inferred, as in Drive-In (2017), where the sandy soil and scrubby bushes and a patch of blue in the corner indicates the location. The title of Bay Street (1988) tells us where we are. Barney often uses long sagging lines (of hammocks, sailing tackle) as compositional unifiers, and that’s the case here, too, where long parallel shadows of two telephone wires run down the center of a street. It takes a minute to realize they are the imprints of the same telephone wires that span the street.

The River (2017) is the most accomplished image in the show.  A sparse and loosely organized group—families and some Revolutionary War reenactors—has mustered on a green and brown lawn beside a river. A splash of deep cranberry red on a Japanese maple blends with darker green hues. What’s going on is not at all clear, although a drummer carrying an American flag is near the center of the action. Barney’s camera stands far and high enough away that whatever tensions there may be among the participants are invisible. From this distance, they seem as homogeneous and amiably inclined toward one another as an assembly of strolling aristocrats in a Watteau fête galante.

This is new territory for Barney. Unable to rely on the human guideposts that have served her so well in the past, she doesn’t seem entirely at ease integrating so many stray elements on such an open scale. Maybe the way forward is allowing a few expressive figures into scenes that would more fully develop a socially informed view of her neighbors and of her New England second home.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $18000, $22000, or $30000, based on size. Barney’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $3000 to $42000.

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