New York Art Crit

by John Haber

Barbara Crane: Repeats

New York Art Crit


1.11.10 – Lenses Extend Unwish

From a distance, Barbara Crane’s photos look raw or even unfinished. Up close, “Repeats” look manipulated for a digital generation. Actually, through January at Higher Pictures, they present a carefully elusive portrait of the 1970s.

Up to two dozen black-and-white frames pack tightly in a row, like contact prints from a single strip of film. That would explain the obsessive repetition, in shots of people from above or of paper dolls. Within, though, a single frame can hold multitudes-often as not, both right side up and upside down. The Dan Ryan Expressway does a loop the loop several times over. In the process, things grow unrecognizable but downright familiar. Shadows become tree branches while the dolls become shadows.

Besides contact prints, one might think of film strips or scientific instruments. Clouds billow into mushroom clouds, while paint peels resemble a seismograph or EKG. Fringes of an unseen garment become mountains. Crane might almost be quoting E. E. Cummings: “electrons deify one razor blade / into a mountainrange.” As so often when science crosses into artprecision creates illusions.

Along with unfoldings in time, Crane’s images unfold in space, including a panorama of the Swiss Alps. Here, too, one thinks of other devices that outrun a human field of vision, like Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha ten years earlier. Like Ruscha, too, the series bridge two notions of banality, the minimalist grid and Pop Art. They have thehumor and delight of Pop Art, too. The swirling highway looks like a 1950s’ product logo that James Rosenquist might have admired. Zippers form a forest of zebra stripes.

Maybe the prejudice of New Yorkers explains why I am describing work in Chicago from 1969 through 1978 as a little behind its time. The gallery has a passion for rediscovering photography from those years, as with Alfred Gescheidt and Donna Ferrato. Crane, born in 1928, covers a lot of ground all the same. The twin axes of time and space pretty much cover it all by definition. Structuralists, who believed that one needs both to describe speech and language, called them diachronic and synchronic. One might think of them instead as just letting go.

They have a dark side as well. The mushroom cloud should have baby boomers looking for a grade-school desk under which to hide. Cummings, for one, meant his poem as a warning against the “comfortable disease” of progress: “lenses extend / unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish / returns on its unself.” It sounds delightful all the same, and it could be describing Crane’s photographs. If there is a hell of a good universe next door, why not also in Chicago?