There are a lot of whale bones in the AIR. (That’s the gallery at UMOCA where their Artists In Residence cap their experience with a one-person show.) There are also a number of red herrings, which can happen when an artist tries to do something unconventional. In Razorbacks, Mitchell Barton set out to explore the boundaries of the unknown, something that would take him beyond such currently overworked topics as identity, ethnicity, and community. Sometimes the effort to help make something clear only succeeds in making it murkier, and some comments on Razorbacks did manage to suggest he was trying to deliberately make the familiar and identifiable as mysterious and unknown as the undersea lives of whales. That’s close, but it comes at it from the wrong end of the beast.
To begin with, Mitchell Barton is essentially a photographer. The parts of Razorbacks can seem daunting in the small space of the AIR gallery, which encourages standing too close to them, so that one sees the patterns of the tape on which he’s managed to print his images, but not their overall content. Here Barton recalls Walker Evans, a twentieth century photographer who lacked the advantages of Photoshop, but who discovered that printed images exposed to weather, as they peeled away and parts were lost, recalled the way images take on new significance as we imperfectly remember them. It’s rare today to see someone do something genuinely original that way with the fundamentals of photography, rather than with the software that digital processes have introduced into that, in turn, devalue what happens before the camera in favor of anything-goes after.
Of course, as the viewer steps back (avoiding impalement on the whale spine in the middle of the gallery) as far as possible, those artifacts of Barton’s impressive printing methodology become less obvious, while the overall image becomes accessible. This is one of the best things about the currently universal presence of cellphone cameras: looking at the work through the phone’s viewfinder can be the equivalent of another ten or more paces back. And this suggests a way to read Barton’s quotation from Moby Dick, from which he drew his title. Looking at art the usual way, while walking alongside the wall on which it hangs, is like looking at a distant whale in the water: all you see it the small part of its back that protrudes as it surfaces to exhale a spout and inhale fresh air.
It should be noted here that Melville’s seafarers hunted Sperm Whales, which spend much of their lives sounding to great depths, while today’s avid whale watchers are likely to see a very different animal: the Humpback Whale, which hunts on the surface and enjoys breeching, or leaping almost entirely out of the water.
And it sings.
So what is Barton’s subject matter? Starting at the entrance to the gallery, the first two prints offer a substantial clue to what interests this artist: just how vision works its wonders. Both “Circle Fish” and “Working Title: I went to the Spouter Inn and all I got was this 4” x 6” print on 65lb Neenah Bright White” are mounted away from the wall on finishing nails, so they cast shadows. Looking closer, these shadows are seen to match those in the photos, and so continue the third dimension represented into the actual space of the gallery. This would be the moment for someone who first went through the 2023 Gala show upstairs at UMOCA to remember “Sticker,” Barton’s contribution there, in which the view of a car’s rear window reveals how precisely the abstract sticker on the outside is reproduced by its shadow inside. Meanwhile, the fish circling in the water aren’t real fish, but look like partly folded photos mimicking fish swimming, while also suggesting the now-rare sight of photographs being processed in the dark room. The companion print refers to the place in Moby Dick’s third chapter where the story begins in earnest, with the meeting of Ishmael and Queequeg, its two central figures. It wouldn’t be amiss to think here about Melville’s theme of proceeding on the basis of false premises, introduced here by Ishmael’s realization that it’s better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.
Another connection to the novel is the puzzling painting that confronts Ishmael at the Spouter Inn, which he eventually figures out, although its subject still sounds less like a real event and more contrived for the painter’s purpose. The various areas of color and linear textures of “Sad Brontosaurus,” the first large work in the gallery, with its pale orange, blue and green clouds, similarly resists efforts to decode it. Even when the component parts are identified and the represented space opens up to look almost natural, though, the conjunction of a wooden table, a ladder, a broadleaf potted plant and a baseball cap defies easy explanation: unless, that is, the tacked-on piano keyboard is meant to suggest a song coming on …
Around the time their colleagues were busy inventing photography, some artists began painting themselves at work, along with the studios in which they worked. Apparently, a kind of self-consciousness was taking form. Barton calls his version “Smiley,” in which studio shot his tapes, tape measure, and materials surround the birthplace of a bony spine with a grisly smile. Such humor appears frequently, like in the related “Family Hangout,” with its table full of tools, materials, and a tiny couch with two couch potatoes: a bird and a stegosaurus, appropriate fellows now that we know birds to be the modern descendants of dinosaurs.
It’s easy, looking around at the 17 works here, to imagine Mitchell Barton, during his residency, periodically recalling the Biblical voice and imagery of Moby Dick and plotting ways to use his tape technique to foreground what the accompanying text describes as the “mythmaking, echo, erasure, instability, and impermanence—both in objects and in the evasiveness of knowledge itself” that resulted. Clearly Barton’s chockablock-full mind still has space to play in. The other small piece with the big title — “Anamorphic Skull Study, or maybe, the Ambassadors Find a Brontosaurus” — invokes after all an enormously popular painting, by Hans Holbein the Younger, in which a skull pops up from the tiled floor like a whale on the sea and a crucifix peeks out from behind a curtain at the extravagant goings-on. Clearly, Mitchell Barton is concerned with the mysteries that lie concealed in what we can perceive of the world. But maybe “concern” is too strong a word. Maybe he’s delighted by the concealed comedy he witnesses (and participates in) and wishes only to bring a little more of it to light.
Mitchell Barton: Razorbacks, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through July 15