As it is superseded by digital imagery, the analogue photograph is becoming emblematic of its capacity to authenticate. What Roland Barthes called the photograph’s ‘evidential power’ has been reduced to a generalization of its previous charge. Artists are increasingly being drawn to inventing metaphors to register this loss of affect. Liz Deschenes, for example, has been reconstructing 19th-century daguerreotype techniques, reducing an image we associate with the earliest analogue photography to a decorative screen that reflects our failing assumption of its conveyance of fact. John Stezaker relies on the dwindling aura of documentary veracity evinced by analogue prints to dynamically offset their theatrical use. Such art is symptomatic of a recognition that the meaning of a causal representation is eroded by our ability to digitally imitate it, until we come to perceive its air of authenticity as an effect.
Not all of Anna Barriball’s art is photographic, but its various forms share a preoccupation with the legacy of causal representation. They are poised between appealing to the remaining recognition of photography’s veracity, and asking us to complicitly acknowledge that this has been diminished to a motif. This theme can become portentously elegiac, as if a causal link to the past automatically granted poignancy to retrospection, and Barriball’s work has a monumental, meditative quality that tends to encourage such an assumption. Like Stezaker, she uses overt artifice – in her case, arbitrary colouring and formalistic patterning – as a counterforce to resist submission to the seductiveness of nostalgia.
Six monitors were evenly distributed across the floor of Frith Street Gallery, each showing a monochrome video loop tinted a single colour, shot at night through the window of an unlit room. They fade in and out of legibility, from image to monochrome, from positive to negative. Abstract tonalities coalesce into negative shadows, a wall of damp-dappled concrete, a tracery of foliage, a rippling net curtain. The contrast between colour-field absence and coloured image resembles a trope from filmic structuralism, reminding us of an image’s materiality with every fade back to the blank screen. The recurring image is both a sign of the glimpsing of reality and a trace of a specific reality itself, hence the image of a brick wall (Candlelight, all works 2013) or of scarred, scored concrete (Night Vision). Both might be stock ciphers signalling something like ‘brute urban actuality’.
Barriball’s various artificializing devices work against the naive credulity of a purely empirical idiom, and ultimately derive from a Warholian root. They show Barriball acknowledging her distance from her subjects by dressing the image in an occultish aura, one that partly disowns the image it proffers. Window with Flourescent Orange is a relief made by laying a wet sheet of paper over a window so it shapes itself to the frame, then fixing the impression with a layer of paint. So far, so neutrally empirical. But Barriball has used silver paint and painted the reverse side in fluorescent orange, so when it is laid in its white frame the gap between the paper and its ground seems lit by an orange glow. The window impression comprehends its rendering of the documentary image as a sign of its own efficacy, by hanging its conceit on a blatant sign for pictorial illusionism: a window or, elsewhere in the exhibition, a pair of doors.
Two perforated drawings, Acoustic Tiles I & II, were made by puncturing with a pencil a sheet of paper laid over a grid of acoustic tiles: holes of various sizes aggregate into a formalistic pattern of triangles and squares resembling the Ben-Day dots of a printed image. The invoked tap of pencil penetrating paper is a metaphor for the sound the traced tiles only imply. Hanging opposite, six ink drawings – Night Window I – VI – also imply a surface now absent, in this case a pane of textured glass that has left a patterning of ink on the paper against which it was pressed. In both series, a causal idiom has ceded to the condition of minimalist decor, which is placed in an ironic light – but never seriously qualified – by the representational function it has replaced but still recalls.