Judith Barry, June 5-July 3, 2004, at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, Calif. 90404
The famously fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous came to mind while viewing Judith Barrys recent exhibition at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Santa Monica. The show features a pair of substantially reworked multimedia installations from the 1990s, including Barrys signature piece Imagination, Dead Imagine (1991), which has triumphantly toured Europe in a show titled "Future Cinema" that was organized by ZKM Karlsruhe in 2002. Both works manage to wring a certain transcendent humanism from a kind of high-tech kinetic burlesque.
A minimalist, nine-foot-square cube, its bottom third mirrored so that the section above seems to float in midair, Imagination, Dead Imagine is a formidable presence in the gallerys darkened industrial-style space at Bergamot Station. An elaborate digital projection system hidden inside the cube throws onto its translucent faces the uninflected image of a persons head. On the front of the cube is the face, on its sides the sides of the head, on the back is the back of the head and so on.
The effect is rather unnerving -- this oversize human blockhead, with clammy-looking skin and gender-bending features, is a roiling presence filling the room. The 3D image is actually a composite of individual male and female actors, whose features have been overlaid, one atop the other, and electronically stretched so that they line up.
If not for the video projections, the austere, geometrically perfect piece might easily be mistaken for a Minimalist sculpture from the 1960s. One of Barrys goals for Imagination, Dead Imagine is to reinsert the human body into Minimal art. Another purpose is to indulge her fascination with Hollywood gore and splatter films, and the action in Imagination, Dead Imagine is nothing if not horrifying.
The poor human head, stretched to unnatural dimensions to begin with, is subjected to one slow-motion sliming after another, first with blood, then urine, then vomit and other substances, all pouring down over the face, into the eyes and mouth and up the nose. There are nine plagues in all, including ones of crickets and worms. The cycle is unending, for after each abject wave is a video "wipe" that restores the head to its pristine state, only to begin its degradation again. Its like slo-mo splatter-film-as-action-painting.
This baptism by bile is both perverse and disconcerting. Is it an allegory of the human condition? Made in 1991, when the AIDS crisis was still a highly politicized issue, Imagination, Dead Imagine turns typical Hollywood horror-film fare into a profound meditation on death. With its depiction of successive, fresh new faces gradually disintegrating within a coffin-like enclosure, the work recalls nothing so much as the slow mortification of AIDS.
Barry clearly seeks to push her viewers to an extreme encounter with the work. Whats most interesting -- or maybe disturbing -- is that the action, for all its perversity, starts to grow on you, until the horrible series of transgressions comes to seem almost beautiful.
Imagination, Dead Imagine takes its title from a one-paragraph story by Samuel Beckett that tells of a couple trapped in a cubic room. "I wanted to make palpable the reality of that experience," Barry said, "and the idea of that as an allegory for the existential condition."
The second work on view in the gallery is a kinetic sculpture called Untitled (Wing). Part of a 1993 series entitled "Au Bout des Levres" (On the Tip of the Tongue), the work is dedicated to the artist Theresa Cha, who was murdered in 1978. Sitting in the middle of the floor in an otherwise-empty space, Untitled (Wing) shape-shifts between a surly lump of grumbling, flushing plastic and fabric, and a diaphanous, winged creature attempting to take flight.
Again and again, this "creature" readies itself for takeoff and then slumps back into its restive state. The wings down time is punctuated by machine-like grunting and grumbling sounds. And, as the work lifts its fabric "wings," hidden projectors send a fleeting torrent of words in light across the dark walls.
Barry and Cha were collaborators, and the writing on the wall comes from a poem they were working on before her death. The words assemble and disappear with dispatch, and its hard to get a clear fix on them. "Beyond" appears many times, as if to suggest that flight, actualization or meaning is beyond our grasp.
The wings are shimmering fabric air socks that trail feathery fabric swaths. They attach to a fabric-sheathed plastic sphere thats two or three feet in diameter and sits on the floor. The sphere contains the mechanisms that animate the piece, which sits dormant until movement in the room triggers a sensor.
The sculpture provokes all kinds of associations, but what is it? Perhaps a failed flying machine. . . or a flightless translucent chicken. . . or a broken, bulbous butterfly. Sometimes its surprising that the thing functions at all, and at other times it seems like a jack-in-the-box gag that jumps out to scare you, laying in wait till someone triggers its sensor, causin it to billow forth in a bluster, then collapse. It has the effect of something you see in a dark corner or on the floor of a closet, a scary tremor of movement where there should be stillness.
In any case, Untitled (Wing) is both ugly and beautiful, ridiculous and sublime. An ungainly heap of groaning laundry that is trying to fly, it remains sublime in its aspirations, its dogged attempts to ascend, and its message, however obscurely spelled out, of longing. Given Barrys inspiration, the piece seems to be an allegory of the mortal coils fearsome death rattle and a souls ineffable flight.