Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
Back to Reviews 96

Constellation of 
Opposites, (detail)

 Constellation of 
Opposites, 1996

Untitled, 1996

Untitled, 1996

Untitled, 1996

barbara ess 
at curt marcus 

by Catherine Morris

In 1901 Bernard Shaw wrote about the 

pioneering days of photography, "the 

process was not quite ready for the 

ordinary artist because...the eyes of 

artists had been so long educated to accept 

the most grossly fictitious conventions as 

truths of representation that many of the 

truths of the focusing screen were at first 

repudiated as grotesque falsehoods...." 

Those fictitious painterly conventions, 

with their roots in the Renaissance--one-

point perspective and the hierarchical form 

of the grid--trained a painter to construct 

a visually accurate representation of 

reality in a two-dimensional format. The 

reality offered by the lens of a camera did 

not, however, upon first examination, lend 

itself to the imposition of such a 

constructed order. Did those first 

repudiating artists see falseness in the 

camera or in the photograph? Shaw clearly 

implies that the reality offered by those 

early of the photographs are the truthful 

replacements for an outdated system of 

representation. Shaw's uneasy link between 

truth and the grotesque is well suited to 

Barbara Ess's photography and the archaic 

immediacy of the pinhole camera. For Ess, 

representing reality is less of an issue 

than simply acknowledging its inherent 


Her current show at Curt Marcus includes 

representations of herself, various 

landscapes, and personal items that act as 

human substitutes--a bra, a pair of 

glasses, a stuffed animal. The tradition-

laden forms of landscape and self-portrait 

dominate the show. And, while we recognize 

the idioms, it is the idiosyncrasies that 

confirm Ess's intention of shifting our 

collective art-historical education from 

the didactic to the immaterial. 

The imposing sky and natural romanticism of 

Ess's landscapes evoke the grand tradition 

of American landscape painting. The dense 

panoramas of George Inness, Martin Johnson 

Heade's approaching storms and Winslow 

Homer's seascapes all have an atmospheric 

charge and describe a subjective reality. 

The 19th century's transcendental and 

heroic proselytizing however is attenuated 

in Ess's photography by the artist's own 

distinctly late-20th-century response to 

the genre. Ess condenses American landscape 

painting down to an obscured point--a flash 

of road, an obliquely lit barn--and 

replaces the infinite with the transitory. 

This effect, while obviously formally 

indebted to the pinhole camera that Ess has 

favored for many years, delivers a moment 

of contracted viewing, a honing in on and a 

momentary sweep that comes more from a way 

of seeing than from a form of mechanical 


While the only photograph in the exhibition 

labeled as a self portrait Prosthetic Self, 

1996 is composed of a pair of glasses and 

bra, several of the other photographs do 

represent the artist. Two other untitled 

photographs show the recumbent artist 

interacting with inanimate human 

substitutes, once in the form of stuffed 

animal and the other with what appear to be 

an empty set men's pajamas. The palpable 

moment is again enacted, this time with a 

the sort of studied simplicity once fancied 

by Lewis Carroll. The final self-portrait 

in the show, Constellation of Opposites, 

1996, is composed a loose grid of closely 

cropped images of Ess's face in a series of 

stylized facial contortions caricaturing 

emotional responses. Formally the 

photograph relates to an earlier work by 

Ess called I Am Not This Body, 1990, which 

was formatted in the same way, though the 

repeated image was a blurred, butterfly-

like rendering of a female torso with legs 

bent and knees spread wide. Both these 

works in their shifting grid form and 

alternating images relate formally to 

Eadward Muybridge and his project of 

capturing motion on static film. The 

regulated form of the grid jogs with the 

altering faces in Constellation of 

Opposites and this piece leans more towards 

the humorous and the wry whereas I Am Not 

This Body exposed the body politic of 

feminism in no uncertain terms. 

The myriad of elements Ess draws together 

in this show all coalesce around Ess's 

singular point of interest--those grotesque 

falsehoods offered by the first cameras, 

which Shaw saw as the truthful counterpoint 

to the fictious conventions imposed on 

artists to represent a singular reality.

Catherine Morris is a New York writer and 

art historian.