Collapsed Distance: Barbara Ess Observes and Surveils at Magenta Plains

Barbara Ess, Fire Escape [Shut-In Series], 2018/2019. Archival pigment print (Courtesy the artist and Magenta Plains)

American art critic Kristine McKenna, writing for the Los Angeles Times in 1991, referred to artist Barbara Ess’s signature pinhole photographs as “luxuriously beautiful.” Those photographs, in which subjects are blurred, information is blacked out and realities blend into fantasies, expose photography as a medium that, at its best, is rife for the subjectivity of the artist to be imparted onto it. As the digital age has progressed, the extreme beauty and creepy sensuousness of Ess’s images have become even more apparent. As digital images get clearer, images by artists such as Ess have acquired a rarefied and dignified quality. These are images that don’t even purport to act as a document of the truth; instead, they announce themselves as the products of an artist’s gaze. “Everything is subjective,” says Ess, then in the throes of making final preparations at her gallery Magenta Plains in the 24-hours leading up to her current exhibition Someone to Watch Over Me. “What we have is our own experience really. There are many realities.”

Just because Ess is known for using antiquated equipment, an image of her as a disconnected analog fetishist is false. At the gallery, Ess is alert, extrapolating and communicating the potential meanings within her work with confidence and ease. She keeps up with culture, too. Perhaps as a holdover from her days editing the iconic 1980s downtown NYC art and literary zine Just Another Asshole, Ess voraciously consumes new exhibitions and films. Her knowledge of contemporary music is shockingly astute, considering how overwhelming it is to keep up with music in the age of Apple Music and SoundCloud, and the accessibility of literally everything (if you are a reader of avant-garde music sites such as The Quietus, don’t tell me you don’t get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of groundbreaking music being made available to you daily). Ess is currently excited by a Mongolian metal band and also expressed interest in attending the Ende Tymes festival of experimental electronic and noise music, which, of course, makes sense considering her memberships in pioneering No Wave bands such as Y Pants and The Static.

Barbara Ess, Roses, 1989, C-print (Courtesy the artist and Magenta Plains)

Ess doesn’t nostalgize the past, neither in terms of larger culture nor in the analog technology she chooses to make art with. Ess’s work, with its tendency to frame the technological glitch as a visualization of ethereal sublime, has a much more elemental notion driving it: Ess prefers to make art within a confined set of limitations. “Maybe I purposefully limit my capabilities so that I don’t have such large array of things to choose from,” says Ess. “Limitation is my muse, in a way.”

At Someone to Watch Over Me, Ess’s first solo exhibition at Magenta Plains, the artist uses a range of lo-fi optical devices and image systems, small telescopes, and a toy microscope, all materials offering their own specific set of limitations. The stunning exhibition is split between two bifurcated, but nonetheless related concepts. The first half of the exhibition presents work from Ess’s Surveillance series. Ess signed up as an online “Deputy Sheriff” with an Internet surveillance site set up to observe the U.S.-Mexico border. Captivated by the ability to collapse the distance between her gaze and the subject matter, Ess began recording the surveillance process. It would be near impossible to not identify a political reading of the video and prints that Ess created through her surveillance of the U.S.-Mexico border, especially when considering the toxicity that surrounds the border narrative in contemporary American politics (and Ess concedes that she thought the border narrative would likely give the work “some urgency”). But Ess is clearly more interested in the conceptual conceit of the project and the aesthetics of the images that came out of the project than she is the inevitable political discourse that is attached to the work. “I liked that it was thousands of miles away,” the artist explains. “It’s not exactly voyeuristic in that sexual sense. It’s about being up close and personal but also far, far away at the same time. That’s what interested me at first.”

Barbara Ess, Single Car [Surveillance Series], 2011/2019. Archival pigment print (Courtesy the artist and Magenta Plains)

The prints from the Surveillance series are painterly. The poor image quality brings a haunting abstraction to almost uncannily mundane scenarios. Wild Horses (2010), for instance, finds a lineup of horses illuminated by a spare infrared light, and depicted as whitewashed silhouettes against a desolate and hazily rendered landscape. The series’ culminating video piece simply documents some of the footage observed by Ess. The allure in watching the surveillance play out is fascinating; one could imagine that a fairly xenophobic, anti-immigrant individual would sign up for this surveillance service, but only those that find themselves driven by more universal desires, such as watching, end up using the technology for any extended period of time. When you watch the video for extended periods, you will see bodies and forms slowly drift through the landscape: in the age of digital surveillance, we are all performing and having our performances observed.

Barbara Ess, Guys On Corner [Remote Series], 2012/2019. Archival pigment print (Courtesy the artist and Magenta Plains)

Moving on from her Surveillance series, Ess used similar technology for her Remote series. Recording the surveillance of weather, traffic and vacation (a color print of a beach scene depicts something of a lush ode to mass mundane recreation), the work reinforces the eerie atmosphere that permeates the body of work at large. We are observing the observations of an artist. The artist’s gaze is present in the work, but certainly the artist never was present. Can distance be collapsed? Is watching from afar, regardless of technology, always different than watching from up-close? These are all questions that Ess would have her work’s viewers grapple with. “What is it like where you are not and what is it like where I am not?” asks Ess.

The second half of the exhibition, composed of photographs from Ess’s Shut-In series, furthers the exhibition’s overall theme of observation, but unlike the Surveillance series, removes the distance between the artist’s gaze and her subject not just technologically, but also literally. The photographs were shot by Ess in her apartment when she was home sick with bronchitis for a month. Ess began noticing, contemplating and eventually photographing previously ignored details from her immediate environment: domestic objects, the changing light on the fire escape outside her window, etc. Just as in the Surveillance works, Ess uses analog technology to collapse whatever distance might be in-between her subject and her gaze, only here she is using telescopes to get even closer to objects and stimuli in her direct environment (distance isn’t just collapsed, but decimated). “There’s something to being present with something that’s far away,” says Ess. “But this forced me to be familiar with the present.”

Barbara Ess, Kitchen [Shut-In Series], 2018/2019. Archival pigment print (Courtesy the artist and Magenta Plains)

Again, one can read here any number of analyses of contemporary culture (particularly the notion that it takes falling massively ill to get a contemporary human being to slow down, take self inventory, and immerse oneself in the beautiful mundanity of an environment). But, Ess is also attracted to the work’s formalism as much as she is to any particular social readings. “I have lived in my apartment for a very long time, and I started noticing,” Ess pauses for a moment, before demonstrating a sly smirk and continuing, “or ‘surveilling,’ what’s been there all along and I hadn’t noticed.”

The prints from the Shut-In series are, like most of Ess’s body of work, subtly striking. Ess made small prints of the photographs before enhancing them with silver, black and white crayons. She then scanned the prints and enlarged them. Ess’s work doesn’t suggest concepts like “the beauty in the mundane” so much as it emphasizes the power of an artist’s subjectivity over an object. Her subjectivity is perhaps even heightened in the Shut-In series due to the isolation she endured whilst developing the work.

Barbara Ess, Stairs [Shut-In Series], 2018/2019. Archival pigment print (Courtesy the artist and Magenta Plains)

Ess has little interest in the concept of photographic image as document of the truth. Her work in the new exhibition, as well as her signature pinhole photographs, almost makes more sense when considered in the context of Ess’s background in film than it does in the context of photography history. While in college at the University of Michigan, Ess attended the Ann Arbor Underground Film Festivals and saw avant-garde films by filmmakers Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage. Back in NYC, she went to many screenings at Anthology Film Archives of experimental and structuralist films by Paul Sharits, Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, Joyce Wieland, and others. She then briefly attended film school in London, but dropped out to co-run the London Filmmakers Co-Op. “Those experimental films were my entry point to art,” she admits.

Like experimental film, Ess’s work presents no strict narrative. She exploits lo-fi equipment to achieve her aesthetic. And most importantly, Ess works within limitations, a hallmark quality of classic experimental cinema. Soviet film theorist Lev Kuleshov said that film viewers tend to derive meaning from cinematic images through sequence and editing. This notion can be applied to Ess’s work. Her images are all startlingly beautiful on their own, but when presented as a cohesive whole, they vibrate off one another and create a heightened mood, and possibly, a personalized meaning.

Adam Lehrer is an artist, photographer and writer. Lehrer’s work consists of manipulated photography, collages made of mostly Internet sourced appropriated images, and video loops. He has had solo shows at Spring Break Art Show, Governor’s Island Art Fair, and has been featured in group shows. Lehrer is also a culture writer, and his art, film and music criticism has been featured in Autre Magazine, The Quietus, Forbes, VICE, Bedford & Bowery, Bullett Media, i-D, SSENSE, and more.

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