Barbara Ess at Curt Marcus Gallery

Barbara Ess at Curt Marcus Gallery
Art in America
September, 1998
p. 123

Faintly colored images surrounded by a dark haze, Barbara Ess's large-scale pinhole photographs evoke childhood sensations and emotions as recalled through the long tunnel of memory. The first piece in the show, which depicts a pair of bare feet nestled in green leaves, brings back the exquisite feeling of walking barefoot in new grass. Delicious as such experiences can be for adults, in childhood they are consuming, ecstatic.

"Wild Life," Ess's most cohesive exhibition to date, was a reminder of the sheer sensuality of such early contacts with nature. These recent photographs conjure the power and immediacy of childhood longings. There is nothing, however, sentimental or nostalgic about Ess's work; nor, despite the potentially ominous dark borders created by her pinhole technique, is it particularly harrowing. Ess succeeds because of the tension she creates between the negative and positive aspects of childhood, a tension that can also be found in the photographs of Sally Mann.

The concept of home, for example, was here exemplified by an image of a row of white frame houses. It appears at first a perfect setting, complete with wispy clouds in the sky. Yet the houses are off-balance, tilted at a worrisome angle. Another work consists of a series of images of a girl, seen from the waist down, holding out the wide skirt of a party dress. The skirt is bedecked with a string of Christmas tree lights, and her tiny, pointed shoes stick out from beneath it like those of a doll. There is a sense of anticipation tinged with the specter of impending disappointment. When do we learn that the expectation of a party rarely matches the experience?

Nature, too, can disappoint. Another work presents a garden scene in the heat of late summer, dominated by a drooping sunflower that is past its prime. The yellowed, dimmed colors are reminiscent of old photographs, and the atmosphere is claustrophobic and oppressive. In this show, only one experience seemed totally complete and unspoiled: a vision of a mirrorlike lake at dusk, at the bottom of which we see the outstretched legs of a reclining female. Here, instead of longing, there is the actuality of perfect serenity -- being at one with nature.


-Carol Diehl

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