Tina Barney

Article excerpt

It would be nice to write a review of Tina Barney's splendid new photographs without mentioning the dread words WASP, New England, or (worst of all) Ralph Lauren, but for most reviewers her work, with its focus on the lives of well-fed, conservatively clothed white people, raises the issue of class, and class is something Americans prefer not to think about. Barney clearly does think about it to the extent that she is aware that an individual's fate is determined by income, education, and nurture, but she is entirely undoctrinaire. With a kind of anxious fidelity she records the lives of the people she knows best. They are relatively privileged people but Barney refuses to be judgmental. To dismiss Barney's work because she is insufficiently hostile to her subject matter makes about as much sense as dismissing Mantegna because he glorified the Dukes of Mantua. Barney simply reveals her subjects in all their vulnerability and unease: her gaze is unsparing and oddly slanted, and she pays us the great compliment of assuming that we can draw our own conclusions.

What is most impressive about the new work is the novelistic complexity of Barney's implied narratives, as in the magnificent and disconcerting The Real Estate Office, 1992. The real-estate office in question is a wood-paneled, very upscale one with a suitably dark and unreadable, old-masterish oil painting hanging in the background. To the left a marble bust looks on impassively, while to the right, a man in a white shirt sits behind a desk absorbed in work, a phalanx of Rolodexes before him. Everything about this backdrop suggests stability and tradition, but what is going on in the foreground is completely jarring. At center stage a woman is answering the phone. The flex of the phone cord traverses the entire left half of the image diagonally, and just behind it stands a woman in a flame-red dress and matching hat, her mouth agape in surprise or shock. …