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ART : Shadow Land : With a pinhole camera, Barbara Ess conjures up a hallucinatory world where everyday images become eerily seductive

November 10, 1991|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

"I think of my work as an investigation and it's always concerned with the same question: Exactly what is the true nature of reality?" says New York artist Barbara Ess of her darkly disturbing photographs.

"I don't know if there's an essential reality it's possible for us to get a grip on," she adds, "but I know I don't experience life primarily in terms of the physical world--my emotions and memories play a much larger role in shaping my experience as a human. I know there's a me that's more solid than this body I move through the world in."

Groping through the ether in pursuit of an essential reality, Ess has produced a body of work that reads as a brooding meditation on the shattered state of life in the late 20th Century. Working with a pinhole camera, Ess manipulates the distortions that are an unavoidable part of that simple mode of picture making so that the distortions read as metaphors for psychological states; her warped interpretations of scenes from everyday life are heavy with a sense of the weight of the past, and of disintegrating social structures.

The pinhole camera--basically a cardboard box with a hole in it--has no focusing mechanism and distorts space and light by pushing the background far into the distance and blurring forms in the foreground. Also known as photograms, pinhole photographs were first developed by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1835. Man Ray elaborated on the technique a century later with his Rayograms, but pinhole photography is rarely used by fine artists. However, it's ideally suited to Ess' sensibility, which she describes as "rooted in ambivalence and confusion. I'm attracted to pinhole photography because my mind works better when my means are narrowed."

Freighted with an undercurrent of bewilderment and loss, her pictures--on view at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Santa Monica through Nov. 30--hide their anxious subtext behind seductive surfaces. Gary Indiana, art critic for the Village Voice, has described Ess' work as "simultaneously ravishing and creepy in a manner evocative of paintings by Whistler or Turner," and her pictures are luxuriously beautiful. The pinhole camera makes intensely sensuous images that undulate and shimmer, images so fluid they seem to depict a world that hasn't yet congealed into solid form. Like artists Gerhard Richter, Christian Boltanski and the Starn Twins (all of whom work with photographic distortion), Ess blurs the edges of the physical world, thus pushing it into a hallucinatory realm; like work by those artists, her images vibrate with an eerie, lyrical violence.

Andy Grundberg, former photography critic for the New York Times, commented that "in making images charged with a darkly ominous undertone, Miss Ess has a finger on the pulse of the times." However, that comment comes as a bit of a surprise to the artist who doesn't see herself as a social critic by any stretch. Her involvement with her work is far too personal for that.

Talking at a Hollywood cafe, the 43-year-old Ess points out that it's not her intention to produce a pessimistic cultural critique. Rather, what she's really interested in is "the place where our interior life intersects with the outside world--and the place where that happens is the body. My interest in that connection intensified a few years ago because I became very ill," adds Ess, who's titled her current series of work "I Am Not This Body."

"During that same period my mother and lots of my friends were sick and dying, so this became a very pressing subject for me. And, being a woman, the issue of aging is also very complex. We all have to deal with the fact that although we experience life largely through our souls, the world judges us in terms of our bodies."

An intense, open woman who comes across as remarkably innocent considering that she's spent the better part of 20 years in Manhattan, Ess lists the central inspiration for her art as "my childhood, taking LSD, the important experimental filmmakers, and Patti Smith's first album, 'Horses'--that record was such a revelation for me when I heard it in 1975. It's so passionate and alive with the sense of possibilities--it gives off a real physical sensation of joy."

Like punk rock's reigning diva, Ess had a multimedia artistic coming of age that included writing, filmmaking, performance art, visual art and music. Born in Brooklyn, the eldest in a family of three girls, Ess recalls: "My father was a truck driver, but as a young man before the war he was an artist who did commercial design. So there were art books in the house and I can remember going to museums with my father. I had a great childhood, very rich and happy, and my family was very liberal--in fact, my grandfather was a communist.

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