Wednesday, 19 September 2007



(First published 10th January 2007)

This comparison was suggested by the interview with Beecroft in the November/December edition (2006) of Flash Art (pp 86-88) and the websites for Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, at SFMOMA and his own. Both artists quickly emerged in the 90s and are generally labelled Conceptual artists for their use of performance and recordings of them, while not necessarily being performer or recorder. The comparison is also an opportunity to explain the category a little.

Both artists are noted for the glamour and prestige of their work, Beecroft for her sizeable casts of models marshalled in grand public venues; Barney for his big budget films, involving elaborate make-up, costumes, props and special effects. In many ways their work is complementary. Beecroft’s work concentrates on the starkly feminine (barring a single foray – VB 39 1999 - with the U.S. Navy Seals) and youthful, on groups and social conformity, the passive and pliant. Barney deals with the masculine, active and individual, in fantasies of travel, feats, mutation and transformation. He shuns an audience for the live performance, revels in the resources of recording, all but overwhelms the performer with production values; builds an immaculate private world.

Beecroft on the other hand briefly musters sample groups by age, sex and race, (see VB 55) depending on location, commences from strict formation in pose and accessories to more relaxed and individual placings by the end of a performance; there reveals other constraints or uniformities (see VB 52). She strips the performer of all but patience (note expressions in VB 50.005), finally grasps little by her sample, compromises recording into the bargain. One is deeply introverted, even indulgent, the other as extroverted, even contemptuously so.

Neither artist provides scripts or scores as works; both rely on recordings to differing extents, stills and movies. Both eliminate dialogue; focus on the visual by exclusion of the verbal. In Beecroft’s case stills are often problematic; consist also of separately posed tableaux or details taken with some of the cast at the location. In Barney’s case, props, costumes and details of décor are often subsequently exhibited as works (see The Cloud Club 2002). In both cases ‘the work’ is not just the performance or its recording, but stresses stages or parts and relations to the work.

This attention to the constitution or identity of the work is central to Conceptual Art. It is often thought that the whole and ‘real’ work here escapes any one medium, remains an elusive concept or ideal. More pragmatically, works are about the process; use the fine arts to demonstrate aspects of the performing arts, even script or score. And fine arts acquires some performance, even literature as a result. Hence Beecroft and Barney are of more interest to art criticism than theatre or movie criticism. Conceptual art thus extends the range of the fine arts, although meets resistance from rival branches. It either mines uncertain peripheries or falls between stools. Many of the traits of Beecroft and Barney’s work are determined by the need to find what is suitable in performances and recording, in order to still identify with fine art, to give priority or dominance to pictures, even as it invades theatre and movies.

Their efforts obviously build on those of earlier and contemporary Conceptual artists. In another post these might be traced along standards of performance and recording. Here it will do to indicate that too much performance or recording fails as fine art (is then claimed by rivals), while too little fails as Conceptual Art. Much depends on rival projects, the momentum of current practice. For example, Beecroft’s recent suite of photographs made at an orphanage in Southern Sudan (VBSS 2006) offer only the poses of Beecroft and locals in stock Christian iconography, hardly record much of the place or a performance by her standards, stage a tepid fiction by Barney’s. The image of Beecroft breastfeeding two black infants (VBSS.002) may wittily suggest the pop star Madonna, the uncomfortable submission of Beecroft’s performers, her implicit co-operation there with the Roman Catholic church, but the Conceptual engagement is weakened, casts these as traditional or minor works.

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