Comments/Context: While the current crop of gallery shows has us all thinking about the evolving intersections of photography and sculpture, Thomas Barrow has been experimenting with many of these same ideas for the better part of the last 40 years. This show provides a succinct sampler of his investigations, from a healthy group of works from his Cancellations series from the mid 1970s (for which he is likely best known) to a handful of increasingly three dimensional pieces from each of the following decades. Taken as a whole, it's an eclectic, uneven body of work, but it certainly provides a broad catalog of original ideas of how the object quality of photographs can be exploited in art making.
When I first encountered Barrow's Cancellations at AIPAD several years ago, my initial reaction to them was that they seemed conceptually flip, the slashing X across the images a kind of academic joke. But seeing them again here and looking more closely this time, I found them much richer and more intriguing than I had originally understood. The images themselves traverse now familiar 1970s New Topographics ground: roadsides, construction sites, chain link fencing, and ugly strip malls, captured in elegant black and white. Barrow then took his negatives and carved urgent gestural lines across the images, making variations on straight and squiggled Xs (along with a few dark circular dots), often playing against the planes and lines in the underlying image. The effect is two-fold: it's a bold negation/rejection of the content of the pictures, and it simultaneously transforms the photographs from being windows on a particular suburban landscape into physical objects with a conscious element of surface texture. It's an unexpected and smart intervention that gives the works a jolt of conceptual vigor.
In the early 1980s, Barrow extended this cancellation idea by physically tearing his photographs into pieces and reassembling them with thick gooey silicon caulk; the effect is even more deconstructed and Matta-Clark incised, the images falling apart and being held together. He then turned to messy overlapped photograms often covered with spray paint, stencils, and attached Polaroids, starting to build up from the flatness of the picture plane with the collaged snapshots. In subsequent works, he has left the safety of the frame entirely for heaps and clusters of Polaroids glued together into squishy agglomerations. Peeping Tom connects images of TV screens, eyes, and faces, while Hare Reliquary heads for overstuffed Joseph Cornell, with a vertical box full of bunnies and marshmallow Peeps, decorated with Polaroids clothes-pinned to the sides. His most recent works are rebus-like bags of random discarded stuff, with photographs just one of the many objects thrown into the visual and cultural blender.
What I like about this show and about Barrow's work in general is that it isn't afraid to take risks and cross boundaries. Not all of it entirely succeeds for me, but I am intellectually interested by his fits and starts, his experiments and his innovations. His view of photography is tangled and snarled up, increasingly a part of a media saturated whole rather than an end in and of itself. Those looking for the physical edges of our changing medium would be well advised to dig in and analyze what's here, as it's a map of iterative extensions and fanciful speculations.
Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The prints from the Cancellations series are either $4500 or $5500 each, and the larger, more sculptural works range from $7500 to $9500 each. Barrow's work has very little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. Barrow is also represented by Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla (here).
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
- Interview: finitefoto (here)
Thomas Barrow, Works: 1974-2010
Through February 9th
Derek Eller Gallery
615 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001