Past Present/Present Past

Memory...acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura: it focuses everything and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original. - Umberto Eco 

In the recent exhibition Winter Wheat Barbara Drucker has created mesmerizing and enduring metaphors of remembrances.The idiosyncratic visual and conceptual journey is constructed on a series of contrasting values. Past and present, natural and artificial, life and death are eclectically and innovatively intertwined throughout these works of art. However, there is neither a dramatic confrontation nor superficial reconciliation. Instead, the artist calmly, yet passionately inserts clues to appease dichotomies and disclose inherent common threads. Personal and collective memories are the key to discovering these connections and embarking on a magical voyage.

The artist, however, is not interested in creating suave nostalgias. Quite the contrary! Drucker’s art is firmly rooted in today’s artistic discourse. A keen observer and sophisticated reader of the contemporary, the artist establishes layered dialogues with her peers. The heterogonous visual paradigms relevant to artists such as Kiki Smith and Annette Messenger are also important to Drucker. The haunting allegorical solitude, visible particularly in the installations, aligns her work in very subtle ways to Boltanski’s concerns for identity and anonymity. Visual quotations from the past and references to primordial occurrences are masterfully transformed into meaningful current statements. The minimalist ordinary objects recall the secular spirituality of Dutch still life. New media converts the palpable trompe l’oeil into a new and intense mimesis. These intricate and unexpected allusions establish a sophisticated path across time and cultures and position Barbara Drucker as a major player within the international art community. The visual narratives in Winter Wheat are defined by paradoxical correlations between abstraction and realism. Calendar and Calendar Notations are perfect examples. The rigorous punctuations, colorful playfulness and geometric patterns construct an enigmatic non- figurative pictorial space. This is not, however, a gratuitous formal exercise. Rather, these meticulous arrangements are symbolic codification of sacred time. This link between graphic designs and contextual values, reminiscent of Xu Bing’s strategies, creates novel systems of visualization that turn form into content and tangible into conceptual.

A similar transformative process is effectively articulated in the large video installation Bread and Death. Binary oppositions on the one hand, and cyclical processes on the other, inform this project. The stark distinctions between the still wooden boxes and the moving electronic images form an allegorical representation of life and death. The depictions of Greek rituals and customs have the precision and accuracy of documentaries. Throughout the video, however, pictures of life are bluntly, yet cleverly collaged to scenes about death to create a rich, poetic, and timeless frieze. Contrasted with the fugitive video images, the impressive number and solid firmness of the blocks become a metaphor of patience, growth, and, in the end, time itself. The frequent references to fire, water, earth, and air generate a unifying concentric continuum with never-ending, perpetual processes. The viewers’ need to sit and contemplate adds an important performative element to the installation. Isolated in an enclosed space the spectators feel compelled to watch in silence an unfolding story which is simultaneous remote and intensely personal.

Avanti I, the other installation in the show, is powerfully enigmatic. The clearly marked converging point is a dark and secretive object. The twelve boxes guarding the display in a formation reminiscent of the ancient Valley of the Kings create the ambiance of a processional. Inside some of these minimalist containers, flour sacks with cheerful fabric rest peacefully. Metaphorical juxtapositions between commencements and conclusions emerge and heighten the reflective mood. The installation becomes a mysterious, silent, yet celebratory memorial. The viewer solemnly proceeds through this orderly assemblage as if passing through time, always forward, avanti, in an epistemological quest for primal beginnings. And there, at the end, erected on a pedestal, is the answer: a well-insulated metallic crate houses and protects the Seeded Book of Prayer. Illuminated from above the relic is temptingly close. But the permanence of the book is only possible if it remains unattainable. A sense of disenchantment brings the viewer back into the present. The title, Avanti, abruptly, intentionally, and forcefully clashes with this impasse. It is too late. The overwhelming stillness is a poignant reminder of irrevocable finality.

The prayer book is a reoccurring motif in Ducker’s work. The mixed media Seeded Prayer Book #1, skillfully manipulates the technical processes to enhance meanings. The flatness of the print both emulates and falsifies the tactile richness of the covers. The texture of the meticulously placed seeds and statements has been reduced to a surface. This reversal of values highlights hidden inner ties and questions absolute, universal significances. Real becomes realism and original is now a re-creation. The beautiful glossy prints fixed onto the exquisite painterly metal reinforce the ambiguous dialogues between natural and artificial. The surprising palette further blurs the distinctions between factual and fictional.

Trapped in the hermetically sealed material the book, as in the Avanti installation, becomes forever inaccessible. A sense of cosmic space emerges unexpectedly from the ethereal background. Time, like the book, is forever suspended. But it is eternity or the end of time? The artist leaves it to the viewer to decide.

Barbara Drucker’s art establishes a lasting pictorial narrative with a unique symbolic vocabulary that both intrigues and reassures. A witty and thoughtful play between a present past and a past present is at the core her sophisticated visual itinerary. Drucker boldly and effectively connects the banal with the sublime and the familiar with the unknown to incite viewers to explore beyond the comfortable level of representational immediacy. It is precisely in this realm where concept and form speak with one voice and “memory acts like a convergent lens” that Barbara Ducker’s work finds its true, profound, and vital meaning.

Irina D. Costache, Ph.D. February 2008