May 2005

Tom Baril

The Ralls Collection

Washington, D.C.

Tom Baril’s work reminds us why people like old photographic printing processes in the same way they like dinners by candlelight in an era of fluorescent tubes and halogen lamps. In this somewhat uneven show, Baril revealed that nothing quite beats copperplate photogravure to extract nuance and atmosphere from grandiose subjects like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial. The artist’s image of the memorial, for example, although taken from a great distance, captures the creases and solemnity in Lincoln’s marble visage as well as the state names incised across the structure’s delicate-looking cornice.

Baril was, for 15 years, Robert Mapplethorpe’s master printer, and some of his images of flowers and landscapes carry a hint of Mapplethorpe’s elegant sensuality. Even Baril’s portrayal of the Kennedy Center appears to be more about its shimmering, nocturnal reflection on the Potomac than about the building itself, which dissolves into a buttery blend of light and shadow. At other times Baril pursues steely simplicity. Either way, his vision and technique suit the capital city, with its bridges, columns, and postwar boxes.

This show included both pictures of Washington, D.C., commissioned by the gallery, and some of Baril’s earlier work, which was better at showing his ability to combine austerity and sumptuousness. A huge gelatin silver print titled Factory NJ (1994) unites steel, brick, water, and sky in a composition of monumental intensity, while some Washington scenes looked like expensive postcards. Nevertheless, one photograph that transcended the merely pictorial was U.S. Tax Court Building (2004). With its interplay of textures, blocky volumes, and receding lines, it seems as much a depiction of the government’s taste in architecture as a portrait of a particular structure.

–Roger Atwood