Whitehot Magazine

June 2008, S.E. Barnet @ De Soto Gallery

June 2008, S.E. Barnet @ De Soto Gallery
S.E. Barnet, detail of Over Ireland, photographic inkjet, 2006, 16" x 22"

S.E. Barnet: One Place to Another
De Soto Gallery, LA
April 26 - June 7, 2008

There’s an old French le jazz hot song that starts “C’est si bon de partir n’importe ou…” which translates literally as “It’s so good to leave (for), it doesn’t matter where”—a sentiment that taken out of context could be mistaken for melancholy or even nihilism but which, being French, is in fact describing the paradoxical optimism at the heart of French Romanticism. It’s like this, the singer is neither fleeing from nor rushing to meet nor intent on arriving at any place or circumstance; nor is that person simply walking in circles, passive, drunk or feckless. Instead the singer is describing a state of acute awareness of being alive, hampered neither by attachment to the past nor expectation for the future, wherein you are mightily aware that the world is a beautiful thing and that you yourself are an integral part of it. It’s just good to be setting out into the day, and the taking of those first steps stretches into an exuberant forever in which the journey truly is the destination.

Until, that is, the chorus of voices representing the scholar, documentarian, semiotician, game-designer, performance and video artist and working professional on assignment rises up from the back of her head, and, for S.E. Barnet, the impulse to comprehend and assign meaning to her experiences makes all that existential stuff impossible, because although she is thoroughly able to appreciate the unpredictability of travels and savor the rigors of discovery, she cannot escape the idea of purpose and the promise of insight. She fixes her gaze on the world around her until its mystery is solved, like a giant, kinetic Rorschach test in which what she sees out there refracts and reflects and reemerges as that which she then is able to perceive in herself. But for Barnet, this is not a one-way flow; the conversation isn’t over until she, in turn, leaves her mark on the world. That’s where her art comes in.

The exotic, schizophrenic facade of the Ulster Museum is half country manor, half modern concrete bunker, Barnet added a sketch of a possible steel lattice cantilevering off the side. That’s it. Like all Barnet’s work, deceptively subtle gestures deploy depth charges. The image is a document, straight photography wherein manipulations are obvious, she was there. She saw it. And then she responded to it in its own language of crazy architectural ploys. It got to her, she got to it. Similarly, the stunning verdure of the view out a plane window in Over Ireland so moved her that she proceeded to obsessively redraw what seems like every individual tree leaf and river grass blade. It is not an homage or an act of aggression either when she does this kind of thing, it’s a way for her to stay focused on her journey, to more fully absorb her experiences into her consciousness—that being the point of engaging with the world in the first place. When she photographs a Travel Office she does it twice—once looking in and once looking out into the street. You go there to plan your escape, sure, but do you notice anything on your way to the agency? Are you curious about the agents, who ironically stay put day after day?

The stunning single channel video piece In Keen and Quivering Ratio makes the privileging of her own viewpoint so explicit that it risks being heavy-handed, but in the end is an ingenuous and witty, gently confounding piece of cinema in which Barnet has filmed herself while sight-seeing in a wooded parkland. At least that’s the impression given, as 80 percent of the screen is full of her face, her eyes not on the camera but on the landscape we see peripherally and out the back of the vehicle. Like some kind of mash-up of Friedrich’s imperialism and Cindy Sherman’s passive-aggressive volunteerism, the video illustrates the lyric—it really doesn’t seem to matter where Barnet is off to, wherever she goes, there she is.
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Shana Nys Dambrot

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.

She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.


Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff


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