Judith Barry

Mary Boone Gallery, New York, USA

Given the figure’s recent return in painting, it’s striking how little mention has been made of its appearance (and decomposition) in abject art of the 1990s. The omission may be purposeful: why dwell on the body’s oozy corporeality when smartphone screens offer confectionary distractions from the abject body in daily news – from tragic images of drowned refugees, victims of war, terrorism, gun violence and police brutality? Then again, perhaps this makes reexamining the abject all the more urgent today.

jb-installation-2017-2-high-res.jpg

Judith Barry, imagination, dead imagine, 2017, installation view, Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Judith Barry, imagination, dead imagine, 1991/2017, five-channel video projection, mirror and wood, 3.1 x 2.4 x 2.4 m, installation view, Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Consider Judith Barry’s imagination: dead imagine (1991/2017), named after Samuel Beckett’s last and shortest novel. Re-installed at Mary Boone, the massive, minimalist cube confronts the viewer with four views of a large head, projected atop its mirrored base. The face of this nameless, androgynous protagonist – a digital composite of a male and a female actor – remains impassive despite successive defilements, dispensed by some off-screen agent until an animated video wipe washes it clean and the process begins anew. In one, the victim is doused with a substance reminiscent of blood; in another, with something resembling vomit; in yet another, excrement. One passage subjects the stoic subject to crawling insects and conjures apocalyptic images of biblical plagues. Abu Ghraib and the US government’s domestic abuses come to mind, as do all the numerous abjections endured by those reduced to bare life, cast out by the state as its projected Others. Through it all the muck-ridden face remains resolute, accompanied only by the sound of heavy breathing.



While looking at the work, one becomes keenly aware of oneself, reflected in the sculpture’s mirrored base and transfixed by the video’s equally repulsive and hypnotic spectacle. One is absorbed, too, by the tomb-like, monumental presence of the piece – part laboratory and holding tank – illuminating the gallery’s cavernous space. If much post-minimalist work seamlessly segues with gallery architecture, Barry’s pulsing monolith infects this institutional aesthetic with the messy contours and fluids of its embodied viewer. For critic Michael Fried, such anthropomorphism always lurked at the heart of minimalism, rendering its works ‘theatrical’, partly because many of its sculptures were human-scaled. In Barry’s riposte, this body returns as abstraction’s prodigal exile, infiltrating and possessing the minimalist cube in a nod to Robert Morris’s mirrored works from the late 1960s. Moreover, if the discourse of abjection once offered a counter to art theory’s focus on media, language and the social construction of identity, Barry’s spectacularized version of the corpus hangs ambiguously between the full richness of the body’s organic associations and the technical apparatus that constructs, contains and renders this body visible.


Abjection ‘is above all ambiguity’, abjection’s patron saint Julia Kristeva wrote in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980). Neither subject nor object, inside or outside, the abject is an interstitial state: a threshold space of fluid indeterminacy that both precedes and transgresses one’s boundaries – hence its associations with contamination and bodily ejecta. In this sense, such renewed focus on the abject and Barry’s persevering protagonist seems appropriate for this political moment, in which the Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress paranoiacally construct and police boundaries of every sort. But here it is also important to recall that the abject, abjected and cast out is not solely a position of victimhood. For Georges Bataille, abjection’s other philosophical touchstone, the lowest of social ejecta – the lumpen – was also a privileged revolutionary agent. Barry’s show suggests that, if anything, we must reassert the abject’s indeterminacy – its illicit, transgressive non-status – to realize its sublime and destabilizing potential. Like Bataille’s informe, likened to ‘a spider or spit’, the abject may be expelled by the dominant order, but it also has the power to subvert it.

Main image: Judith Barry, imagination, dead imagine, 1991/2017, five-channel video projection, mirror and wood, 3.1 x 2.4 x 2.4 m, installation view, Mary Boone Gallery, New York

David Geers is a freelance writer who lives in New York, USA. His writing has been published in, among other places, October, Fillip, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, The Third Rail Quarterly and frieze.

Issue 189

First published in Issue 189

September 2017

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018