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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Cara Barer


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I’m not easily shocked and I’m rarely given to righteous indignation. Sculpt the naked form of Jesus out of milk chocolate and hang it in a department store window…I won’t blink an eye. Use cadavers and body parts as props for macabre photographs…I may not enjoy it, but I’m not outraged. Take pictures of circus sideshow geeks, junkies lying dead on bare filthy mattresses, victims of mutilating accidents…I’ll question your taste, but I wouldn’t be shocked.

Yet when I came across Cara Barer’s Book Project my first response was a sort of shocked disbelief. That was followed almost immediately by some indignation and a dollop of outrage. I have an almost religious reverence for the printed word; this woman was deliberately…deliberately…damaging and mangling books.

Books!

The horror, the horror.

Barer describes her book series as "a documentation of a physical evolution. I have changed a common object into sculpture in a state of flux." In truth, there is no evolution taking place here. Manipulation, certainly. Transfiguration, without a doubt. But the change taking place in these books is no organic evolutionary step. It’s a direct, ruinous, often violent intervention.

And yet…and yet…I’m forced to admit the result is compelling. There is an elegance to Barer’s work. These poor tortured and tormented books have been martyred and in their martyrdom they are made beautiful.

Barer’s book series was inspired by seeing a weathered copy of the Yellow Pages dangling from a telephone booth on Drew Street in Houston. "I realized I owned many books that were no longer of use to me," she has said. "Would I ever need Windows 95?" So she began to collect outdated books from friends and at half-price stores and experiment with ways to transform them.

Barer has said that with the book series she hopes to raise questions about the ways in which people obtain knowledge in the modern world, and about the future of books. She seems to be suggesting that books are increasingly becoming anachronistic, that they are being reduced to mere objects of decoration or fetishes for intellectuals.

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Barer’s interest seems to be centered around the intersection of close observation and the transformation of common objects. In her earlier series entitled Up Close she set out to reveal "minute qualities that are often overlooked." By looking at ordinary things in different ways, she hopes to gain some sort of insight. It’s not at all clear to me what she’s seeking insight into. The nature of the thing being observed? The nature of the observer? The nature of observation itself?

Her cross-section of a pomegranate reveals a red, pulpy mass that could be anything from a lesson in gross anatomy to an illustration of an sci-fi alien egg incubator. It’s a lovely image, to be sure. The fact that it was created not in a camera but on a flat-bed scanner is an intriguing technical footnote, but it doesn’t add anything to the image itself.

Barer is somewhat more successful, I think, in her Transmigration series. Here she steps out of the realm of close observation and into a realm of visual metaphors. In several images from the series, she uses a simple white nightgown to represent the soul. Although her theme of traveling to "the next plane of physical existence or to a higher level of consciousness" is perhaps a tad trite, the concept of the white nightgown is an effective device. A nightgown is delicate, easily damaged and easily stained, and yet it is flexible and surprisingly sturdy. It’s a brilliant conceptualization of the soul.

I rather wish she’d used the concept with more subtlety, but my understanding is that Barer is still in the early stages of this series. Perhaps as the series takes shape, her conceptualization will become more clear and her work will grow more incisive.

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Cara Barer, a 41 year old mother of two, has been part of the Houston photographic culture for about a decade. Until her Books series, she received relatively little recognition. Looking over her body of work, one gets the sense that she has been struggling to find her natural voice. Will she ever join the masters of photography? No, probably not. But her journey is one that is familiar to many. She has something to say and a desire to say it; with each successive series, she seems to be saying it more clearly.