Reviews & Essays
“Barbara L. Bachner: PERSON(A) – PERSONA(L)” by Linda Weintraub
Linda Weintraub is a writer, critic, curator, and The Henry Luce Professor of Emerging Arts
at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio.
The polar extremes that distinguish Barbara Bachner’s private persona and her public person parallel her life-long affinity to two authors. They are an odd pair. Fondness for Jane Austen corresponds to Bachner’s willing complicity with the rules of decorum. She updates Austen’s curtseys, petticoats, teas, and prim English manners, transforming them into today’s beauty-parlor waves, tailored suits topped with carefully coordinated scarves, and courteous greetings to visitors in her Chelsea loft and her Manhattan apartment.
However, Bachner’s psychic pendulum also deposits her in the dark and chaotic world conjured by the distinguished contemporary writer, Thomas Pynchon. The characters who populate his novels, like the readers who absorb them, are engulfed in an unpredictable universe in which events accrue arbitrarily and inevitably devolve into irreversible turmoil.
Austen-like paintings were products of Bachner’s academic training at the Art Students League and the National Academy School of Design. These portraits and figures honored the chromatic richness of visual appearance and the tangible certainty of matter. Gradually, Bachner’s gaze relaxed. Instead of scrutinizing the observable details of her models’ faces and bodies, she searched for evidence of their psychological states. As her attention shifted to the less visible features of her models, she cultivated the intuitive faculties required to perceive them. The succeeding decades of Bachner’s career have been distinguished by this fascination with the human mind, especially those mental zones that are cordoned off from understanding. Its unfolding can be charted from these tentative explorations to the bold displays of her untamed subconscious that she later produced.
Bachner’s paintings came to excavate the murky crevices and eerie shadows that lurk within the human soul. In a parallel manner, Pynchon’s novels transpose the dark side of the mind into the seething underbelly of industry and sewers of the metropolis. In his text, subjects lose their predicates, signs dislodge from their sources, plot lines converge. Discovering meaning necessitates a process of sorting and reconstruction that is commonly applied to dream analysis.
In a corresponding manner, a convoluted dream state pervades Bachner’s work. The journal in which she has, for over twenty years, faithfully recorded the images that appear in sleep is evidence that Pynchon mayhem lurks beneath her Austen exterior. The journal commenced the year Bachner terminated a long period of psychoanalysis and it has been accumulating ever since. Some entries are violent, some sexual, some are simply banal. One by one, they are selected and provide the stimulus for a new work. Bachner suppresses judgements regarding literary quality and content to assure the use of censorable experiences. Still, it is the inevitable conflict between self-exposure and self-concealment that is responsible for her works’ powerful and alluring presences.
Competing inclinations are also mirrored in her elaborate painting technique. Using the handle of a brush, Bachner inscribes the text of a journal entry onto a canvas that has been coated with a thick layer of modeling paste. Traveling from edge to edge with well-honed penmanship, this residue of her Catholic school training collides with the censorable content it often describes. While the canvas is still wet, it is covered with Asian paper. In this manner, both the canvas and the paper receive the relief impression of a dream narrative. In the first works to be produced by this process, words and phrases served as grounds for further scribing, layering, and brushing of paint. The works’ allure was not only a product of their vibrant, painterly surfaces, but of the intriguing experience of perceiving a message that could not be deciphered.
As the dream works evolved, Bachner’s script escaped from its linear regularity. Images that arose in the process of transcribing the journal entries appeared beside the text. By including these simple sketches, she became both a respondent to, as well as a reporter of, her dreams. Yet even the addition of these evocative clues does not allow viewers to grasp specific meanings. The works continue to tantalize by providing discernable evidence of a confession, but not its contents. Although the haunting presence of the human subconscious became palpable, the paintings ultimately succumb to abstraction.
Each of the paintings has its counterpart. Bachner’s paper work is a print drawn from a canvas wet with modeling paste. Nonetheless, paper and canvas pieces follow independent trajectories as they proceed to completion. What they share is the preservation of the artist’s privacy. But it was not merely the discomfort of laying bare her psyche that led Bachner to camouflage her dreams. Hiding their specificity, she says, asserts the universality of the human subconscious and assures that the work is relevant to others.
Bachner is currently contemplating another Austen/Pynchon dilemma. Obscure? As an artist, her special talent lies in her ability to create sumptuous stratified surfaces. But when text succumbs to texture, the meanings of the laminar scribbles remain indecipherable and mystery prevails. Reveal? The habit of suppressing content has recently been supplanted by the urge to disclose the explicit substance of her dreams. Bachner now theorizes that her disjointed jottings have wider application by demonstrating how thoughts race and leap through the mind. Two new forms of creative expression, books and a video, have become the sites for this exploration.
In the book she has recently completed, her journal entries meander around photographs and drawn imagery. Assembled in the manner of an accordion, the pages unfold in a continuous, orderly narrative. Bachner has taken great pains to assure the graphic clarity of the text. Anyone willing to track its circuitous path can easily read each word.
Bachner is currently wrestling with the implications of her fixation on dreams. She ponders whether constantly reverting to her autobiographical preconscious investigations is a destructive obsession even though they continue to inspire new creative endeavors. Should the improvisational avenue be restrained and made orderly? Can work that originally served as personal therapy be made applicable to others? In a world characterized by strife and contention, can people discover in her work an example of our shared humanity?
Bachner remains convinced that most people’s hold on reality is tenuous and she believes that is a good thing. Sleeping, for example, is infinitely more creative than the attitudes, desires and emotions that engage the waking state. Yet this Austen world still captivates, even though it seems divorced from the rich creative sources explored by Pynchon. Bachner is currently seeking their fusion and the culmination of her distinguished career. Her life-long explorations have set her trajectory, but the destination remains uncertain. She has discovered that even a mature artist benefits from patience. Bachner has commented that everything in her work is a matter of waiting. As her history has demonstrated, she has produced accomplished works of art throughout her career – works representing repression and those of revelation, academic realism and free abstraction. Now, Barbara Bachner’s pendulum seems poised to attain equilibrium between her dual magnetic poles, envisioning the fullness of the human experience in all its visual splendor.