Uta Barth: In Between Places
Henry Art Gallery, 15th Ave NE at NE 41st St, 543-2280. Through Jan 21.

LOOKING AT AN UTA Barth photograph--to say nothing of a whole show of her work--is a curious experience, one that is large enough to encompass a feeling both of the mind wandering and of the eye settling stubbornly on one thing. The photographs feel both deliberate and accidental, and a close, patient look at them gives up nothing to tip the balance one way or the other.

The easiest way to describe Barth's work to someone who has never seen it is to do it a disservice, since such a description--out-of-focus, peripheral, incidental--trivializes the result. Take, for example, a diptych from Barth's 1999 series nowhere near. Both images are of a chair by a set of windows. Neither chair nor windows are shown in their entirety, and the arrangement has a very casual feel. The photograph was taken either very early in the morning or late in the afternoon, but it feels more like a winter afternoon when the sun is low on the horizon. Light fills the window, washing out the color of the room and creating translucent flares that sit on the surface of the images. The first photograph is more light-filled, more washed-out than the second, which was taken at a slightly different angle, and the effect is that of turning your head to get the sun out of your eyes. It's not just about effect, however. It's really about the process of looking--of adjusting your eyes to see better, of looking through light and distance to whatever happens to be there.

That what happens to be there, in Barth's world, isn't what we usually consider to be a subject, or something worth focusing on, is part of what her photographs teach. In her most recent series, ...and of time, she captures the light broken by the windows of her apartment as it travels across the floor. Or any of the works in the Field series (1994-1997), in which the camera seems to relax its focus, like an eye allowing a background to blur, so that the frame contains only shadowy figures and circles of light. These works push uncomfortably at what we expect photography to do; despite all the different ways in which photographers manipulate their subjects, and all the ways we've come to understand that what's in a photograph doesn't necessarily correspond to anything real, we do still expect a photograph to give us information, more than we expect such a delivery from, for example, a painting. We expect, and Barth's photographs refuse to give it up. There isn't anything in the photograph to tell us what it's about.

This doesn't mean that her work is devoid of emotional content. They're suggestive in a filmic way, much of it the kind of thoughtfulness associated with melancholy, with staring at a window and feeling neither happy nor sad but suspended between the two. It's as if, lacking a conventional subject, her works make the viewer the implied subject, as if you had transported yourself into the frame. You become, in looking at her work, involved in the process of looking. You have to figure out where to stand, and although it's tempting to go right up close and examine them (an impulse that a lot of photography counts on), the work pushes you back. The lack of focus, the zoom on a small architectural detail, make you want to figure out where, if there were a subject, it would go, and before you know it, you're looking at the work from all the way across the gallery.

The photographs from Barth's Ground series (taken between 1994 and 1997) are hung so simply, so cleverly, that it gave a friend of mine a pain in his chest on opening night. The images are of aspects of an interior (a bookcase, a light fixture), and they are hung in a way that suggests the whole room that these individual pieces represent. An image of a corner is hung where two walls intersect. An image of a partly open door, with a finger of light growing in the open space, is hung on a partial wall, so that the two spaces in the image are echoed by the two spaces in front of the viewer. It's not, I think, a gimmick, but another way that Barth's photographs teach you how to look at them. And in the end, Barth's choices seem almost more philosophical than aesthetic, a way of seeing more than a way of doing.

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