The Color Salmon – Tina Barney at Paul Kasmin

by Jacob Kiernan

Paul Kasmin Gallery
MAY 7, 2015 – JUN 20, 2015

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Tina Barney. Mr. and Mrs. Leo Castelli, 1998. Chromogenic color print. 48 x 60 in, 121.9 x 152.4 cm.

Few forget seeing Tina Barney’s prodigious family photographs for the first time. Clad in matching pink robes, crowded around a sturdy kitchen table, barbecuing shirtless, these images have become iconic of New England family life. For forty years, Barney continued to focus her photography on the familial, which has been collected by Paul Kasmin Gallery as Four Decades.

Barney’s family, and the families that she has continued to document, are, of course, of a particular class. Her photographs lend a window into a lifestyle of unlimited means and effortless glamour. The spectator can’t resist gazing voyeuristically at a life of undaunted by concerns of money.

In Four Decades, Barney, further, provides an examination of the potency money has over art. One photograph, “The Bust” shows an artist sculpting the receding hairline of a benefactor in his opulent home. Another, “Mr. and Mrs. Leo Castelli” captures the decidedly May-December marriage of the Castelli’s—Mrs. Castelli tosses her hair back mimicking a sculpture in the background; beside the couple, a small painting redoubles Mr. Castelli.

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Tina Barney. The Tulips, 2001. Chromogenic color print. 48 x 60 in, 121.9 x 152.4 cm.

Barney reflects upon the wealth that founded, and sustained, her career. The affluence is a double-sided coin: rich collectors have supported her, but, further, it was the initial representations of her family privilege that lent her notoriety. That is not to say that every child born with a silver spoon in their mouth could produce beautiful photographs that Barney captures. Yet few artists have the time and means to pursue their passion. Barney intrepidly confronts the affluence that birthed her career.

Four Decades, however, complicates this story. “The Tulips” shows a breathtakingly beautiful florist tossing together peach tulips, likely for some benefit. She is caught in the modest breath of her creation. “The Nude Model” depicts an olive-skinned model, a small tattoo New Jersey adorning her hip, as she is surrounded by hungry sketch artists pencil in hand. She sumptuously commands the gaze of her audience. These images provide a counterpoint to Barney’s family photographs, attempting to depict more humble yet complex dynamics of artistic creation.

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Tina Barney. The Nude Model, 2010. Chromogenic color print. 48 x 60 inches, 121.9 x 152.4 cm.

The central question of Barney’s work is whether she can successfully synthesize the means from whence she came by focusing the lens upon it. Photographs like “The Tulips” and “The Nude Model” evince an attempt to do this from another angle. Yet, ultimately, it is her photographs of wealth and family that command the most potency. These photographs subtly alchemize an extreme privilege with familiar comity.

While this affluence has been fundamental to Barney’s work, her work is most powerfully an examination of family. It dissects the structures of siblinghood and parentage even as they hide under the accouterment of extreme wealth: Adorned in the glamour of extravagance, the essence of family pumps through the veins from these photographs. Barney’s work is an anthropology of wealth, insofar as it defines a tribe, but a tribe that can never be divided.

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