Johanna Barron: “Acres of Walls”

at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center

“Norman Bluhm, Inside Orange,” 2015, Johanna Barron
Acrylic on canvas, 63″ X 54″
Photo: courtesy Disjecta

Johanna Barron dons at least three hats in “Acres of Walls”: painter, detective, and dogged, truth-seeking investigative reporter. In 2008, she became fascinated by Taryn Simon’s photograph of paintings displayed in a hallway inside the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Since then, Barron has delved obsessively into the nature of that agency’s art collection. In the current body of work, she hones in on paintings donated by Vincent Melzac (1914- 1989), a mercurial businessman, horse breeder, and art collector. Beginning in 1968 and ending shortly before his death, Melzac supplied the CIA a rotating selection of paintings by mid-century abstractionists including Thomas Downing, Norman Bluhm, Morris Louis, Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. Perhaps not surprisingly, when Barron queried the agency for specifics about the collection, she found herself stonewalled. So in 2009 she began submitting formal requests through the Freedom of Information Act, a process she continues to the present day. The letters, faxes, and photocopies of her circuitous correspondence with the CIA lie upon a table in the center of her exhibition, a cache of dossiers replete with blacked-out redactions, insinuations, and obfuscations that speak far more to the agency’s culture than to the history of post-war abstraction.

On three walls surrounding the documents hang Barron’s reproductions of 10 paintings from the CIA’s Melzac collection-effectively a faux gallery, which she envisions as “a time capsule, almost a trophy of these paintings’ history.” Fittingly, her reproductions are as shifty and opaque as the tactics of espionage. Because she could not view the originals, she was forced to make educated guesses about hue and composition. For example, when the only extant photograph of a given painting was taken from an angle, she used software to approximate what it looks like straight on. She also took personal liberties, using canvas when some originals were on panels, and vice versa. Her version of Morris Louis’ Gamma (1960) is painted, not stained; her take on Norman Bluhm’s Inside Orange (1966) demonstrates the impossibility of fine-brushing to recreate the impulsive spurts and splatters of action painting. Finally, she rendered the works at three-quarter scale, a decision more practical than conceptual for an artist reproducing large paintings in a small studio. But a copyist’s fidelity to source material is not the goal here, for this is a simulacrum, a house (or hallway) of mirrors in which aesthetics and politics refract into grotesquerie. Above all, this thought-provoking exhibition questions our notions of concealment, distortion, and that which can never fully be known.