Tina Barney’s nominal survey “Four Decades” attempted to do more than it reasonably could. The limited selection of 11 photographs, while providing a sampling of the photographer’s oeuvre, oversimplified her progression as an artist. Moreover, despite the show’s title, the works spanned 1982 to 2010, representing less than 30 years. Evidently in want of curatorial guidance, the exhibition was framed in a problematic way, though one not bad enough to spoil the pleasure of viewing the pictures themselves.
Barney has been making photographic monuments to upper-class domesticity since the early ’80s. Her color prints are light-filled and lusciously detailed, like portraiture during the High Renaissance. They’re also quite big—most in the show were 4 by 5 feet—which adds to the grandiosity. But unlike other significant photographers who use a large-format view camera—Gregory Crewdson, Jeff Wall and Thomas Struth, to name a few—Barney goes for a seemingly improvised aesthetic. Some of her most impressive pictures, such as Mark, Amy and Tara (1983), look like really good snapshots. This is not easy to achieve with a view camera (it’s too clunky and slow), but Barney and her subjects make it happen.
The relationship between artist and subject is pivotal in portraiture. In Barney’s early work, she focused on her family members and their homes, using her closeness with the subjects and her access to their mundane activities, like eating breakfast or applying makeup, to create a sense of intimacy. Beverly, Jill and Polly (1982) is a perfect example. The women are shown cleaning and primping in a bedroom, so comfortable with Barney that they pay no attention to her camera. It’s remarkable that the intimate quality is not diminished by the image’s large scale.
Barney’s best pictures are, at once, depictions of places, records of events and portraits of people. The combination of the three elements in a single image creates a powerful sense of narrative, as if one were looking at a film still. However, when the elements fail to cohere, the image can seem strained and lifeless. In Mr. and Mrs. Leo Castelli (1999), for instance, the sitters look awkwardly posed in their home. There is no event taking place other than the portrait session itself, which is not enough to create a compelling sense of narrative. It is one of the only photographs in the show that looks more staged and deliberate than natural and spontaneous.
Certain stylistic elements reveal themselves in Barney’s work over time. Nearly all the pictures on view make use of windows or mirrors or, in place of those details, paintings or areas of reflected light on walls. These components visually anchor Barney’s compositions, but they also allude to the act of seeing and being seen. To this end Barney’s photographs are more reflexive than they may initially appear, and when the depicted event extends the theme, as in The Nude Model (2010) and The Bust (2003), which show artists drawing or sculpting a model, the condition of being seen moves into meta-photographic territory.
By contrast, the condition of going unseen, of being overlooked or forgotten, lurks in the background of these images, as it does in all portraits, since such pictures always function on some level as mnemonic devices. What makes Barney’s photographs important artworks is their ability to operate as memorials not only for a family or a person, but for a culture.