BY Jenni Sorkin in Reviews | 09 SEP 01
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Issue 61

Dear Friends/Burt Barr

BY Jenni Sorkin in Reviews | 09 SEP 01

Art about sex and love is inevitably filtered through the lens of our own relationships, hook-ups, affairs, flirtations and trysts. But it is hard to shake the allure of brevity, the kind of passionate physical love intensified by the mutual expectation of impermanence.

Two recent shows, 'Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918' and a solo show of Burt Barr's video works, while seemingly disparate, explored similar themes of desire and longing. Curated by art historian David Deitcher, 'Dear Friends' is an historic gem, excavating a photographic history of male friendship and love, while Burt Barr's cinematic projections portray the glory of seduction and foreplay. Both lens-based media with sensuous potential, photography and video are well equipped to convey want and need. It is sometimes a challenge to impart love without being sentimental or mawkish, but both Deitcher and Barr succeed in compelling ways.

Both bodies of work entail couples publicly smitten with each other. Deitcher's subjects are antique snapshots of long-dead young men enjoying each other's company: Civil War-era soldiers in uniform with their arms around each other, men dancing together, a young man casually perched upon the knee of his companion. Taken at a time when photography was still a painstaking process, these Tintypes and Daguerreotypes were precious keepsakes, curious and private mementoes, possessions of possession, sent and exchanged by close friends and intimates. The photographs are awe-inspiring in their casual defiance of my assumptions about Victorian-era sexuality. Deitcher has provided a serious and important revision of little-known (and little-understood) vernacular photography, confirming a patrolineage of gay sexuality, before the term 'homosexual' actually existed. This period of pre-Freudian bliss permitted intense and fluid friendships in the haven of all-male societies such as universities, the military and the expansion of the American West. Such circumstances ensured closeness and camaraderie, where temporary romances developed and flourished. Deitcher's wall texts were thoughtful, well researched and informative, resulting in a detailed narrative that explores the socio-economic conditions and ambiguous histories of same-sex intimacy.

In contrast, Barr's liaisons are neither historical nor vernacular. Sensuous and linear, his six-screen video installation Sextet (1998-2001) reads more like art-house cinema than video art. Three diptychs are populated by couples in isolated, typically amorous settings: the woods, a car, a beach. Recreating ordinary make-out situations, Barr's wordless narratives unfurl slowly, inducing a pleasurable meditation where the slightest details are sexualized, so that bare, dirty feet are somehow more revealing than cleavage or the flash of panties. Of the three, Rain Piece (1998) is the most evocative, portraying a couple in a parked car, glazed by sheaths of rain, the windscreen wipers fast and furious. A long-drawn-out seduction ensues, complete with steamy windows, culminating in an unseen blow job, Warhol-style. Thoughtful and raw rather than sexy, the video contains all the pauses of real life, each partner retreating to the windows at opposite ends of the front seat. Barr's videos are forays into foreplay, romantic interludes that are arousing without being exacting. Shot entirely in black and white, Sextet borrows from the shadowy contrasts and grainy contours of film.

The works in both shows foster and capture the territories between caution and passion. Ranging from carefully demonstrative to undeniable familiarity, the body language of each couple reveals an overt intensity hidden within the complex and distinct rhythms of individual circumstance. Still or moving, historical or contemporary, an aching narrative exists, tender and reverent, witnessed in the physical devotion of one body to another.

Barr's deliberate scenarios expose and unlock a nostalgia for intimacy and, if such a things exist, love affairs with happy outcomes, where sex can be a refuge for both parties, a mutual lingering and dwelling in the body of another. Overall, both shows are gutsy, Deitcher's in formulating a highly original thesis, and Barr in embracing a highly aesthetic, linear style in a medium deluged by the personal, the documentary, the repetitive, and the short and boring.