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Sondheim Finalists 2016: Stephanie Barber conflates text and image to question artifice

Sondheim Finalists 2016: Stephanie Barber conflates text and image to question artifice
(J.M. Giordano)
Closing the loop of text-based art in the Sondheim Finalists exhibition shared by fellow finalists Larry Cook and FORCE, Stephanie Barber's work offers a dynamic engagement that might take hours to experience in its entirety, but still remains potent in small fragments.
Through the lens of one of three white plastic viewfinders in Barber's installation, a dusty photograph of an animal sculpted in snow is overlaid with the words: "abstracted or realistic representations of animals created by humans can be found in the earliest known examples of human artifacts. these effigies are enduring and suggest a dual-inheritance theory of culture and evolutionary biology working in tandem to bring us to this elevated, contemporary vision of art and the natural world." This slide is one of several in just this one viewfinder—the other two contain entirely different sets of photographs and prose—but alone it gestures to the heady focus of Barber's work: the historical and artistic relationships humankind shares with nature, as well as the nature of language itself.
But the first image in Barber's room to hit you is a large video projection: behind a tiger running steadily in place, images of chic domestic spaces that appear to have been taken from home design magazines flash at less than one second intervals. At the foot of the projection and stretching nearly to the opposite wall is a massive 'Lawn Poem' embedded in artificial turf. Dozens of handmade cloth snakes (the only pieces in the room not to be touched) lay clustered along the walls and corners. The song of chirping crickets plays. Visitors are invited to walk across the turf to read the poem:
OH WILEY NATURE
STAR OF SO MUCH
HOPE AND TRAGEDY.
HOW DEEPLY YOU MUST
BLUSH AT OUR FLIMSY
ARMOR. WEATHERMEN,
LOVE, INSURANCE. CLOCKS
AND SMALL SETTEES.
The installation is playful and childlike; in fact, it feels a bit like a Jenny Holzer take on the Småland play area in Ikea, where you can drop off your kids so they can tumble around fake, stylized trees while you shop for zebra-print comforters and pillow cases.
Through the entire installation and poetry, Barber considers how humans shelter themselves from nature—even attempt to control it—and meanwhile recreate or manipulate natural elements to enhance man-made spaces. We select parts of nature that work for us and discard those that don't. The tone of the 'Lawn Poem' and the strength and visual dominance of the tiger suggest that Barber, like many, sees nature as superior to artifice.
Turning away from the projection, visitors can engage in more intimate experiences with the pieces. And like the "grassy" area, the vessels that contain—and are a part of—the rest of Barber's work here also evoke childhood, a too-brief period in the human life filled with wonderment and exploratory relationships to nature.
By inserting a quarter into a old gumball vending machine, you receive a clear plastic ball that, when opened (after some struggle—you might need to take it home and pry it open with a flathead) reveals fortune cookie-like scrolls containing 'Sentences about Nature as a Metaphor for Economic, Emotional, and Existential Horror.' Mine read: "the storm's electricity an ode to mountain's stoicism"; my friend's: "combed silk upholstery printed with jungle leaves and vines."
Beside the vending machine are the three aforementioned viewfinders containing '3 Essays on Nature' by way of short selections of prose superimposed over grainy photographs of both wild and domestic scenes that the beholder can flip through with the pull of a lever. The prose seems to narrate or be inspired by the image, and meanwhile lends insight to Barber's entire installation. Over a photo of two men seated on a couch in front of a houseplant and a poster of a Picasso painting: "contemporary art fights with and sometimes poses as houseplant."
Some artists cringe at the thought of their work being bought or reproduced to serve the function of decoration, as if decoration holds nothing more than material and commercial value. But interior design and decor can and often does play a huge role in a person's well-being, identity, and relationship to the world, especially when it comes to domestic surroundings. So here, with the context of her entire installation, Barber suggests that the Picasso poster serves the same function as the adjacent houseplant—but maybe a houseplant is not so trivial. A houseplant represents the human need to engage with nature selectively—we remove ourselves from the outside, but take a piece of it with us. Are we then in an artificial nature, or merely a controlled one?
The Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist show is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through July 31. City Paper will be posting reviews of all of the finalists leading up to the award announcement on July 9. For more information on the Sondheim awards, click here.
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