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Santa Monica

Robert Barry is an artist who deals with the elusive, with things on the edge of comprehension. His interest in things at the threshold of perception led him in 1969 to make invisible conceptual installations of ultrasonic sounds or to release odorless, colorless gas in the Mojave Desert while ironically using photographs of the sites for documentation. A current show of his prints and paintings from the early 1980s incorporate faint words, precisely hand-lettered on intensely colored squares of paper or canvas. The color visually dissolves language and conveys some of the slippery nature of thought and understanding.

The words on the largest pieces are written in a silvery graphite pencil that can be seen only up close and when the light strikes them at an angle. They run upside down and right side up at odd horizontal and vertical positions around the edges of the paper so that to read them all requires a lot of head craning. The words, such as risk, contradictions , leave behind , wish , and so on are open-ended yet emotionally descriptive. Hunting them out in the bright orange and deep red in order to absorb their meanings is curiously like tasting delicate flavors and gaining an appreciation for the way they go together to make an indescribable sensation akin to knowing.

Somewhere in the center of the square is a faint, almost imperceptible image of a leaf-barren tree with exposed roots. The tree and an occasional doppelganger emerge from the color gradually, like a latent retinal image whose shape suggests both the optic nerve at the back of the eye and the branching diagrams used to analyze sentences in grammar school. As simple as these elements are, they form an ethereal experience touching on the limits of perception. (Roy Boyd Gallery, 1547 10th St., to March 30.)


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