Review: From books to buildings, two thoughtful Jackson Fine Art exhibits

“Summer Reading #5" (2019) by Mary Ellen Bartley is on view at Jackson Fine Art through March 22. In this series, the photographer playfully explores the haptic qualities of the printed books with an eye for abstraction.

Credit: Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art

Credit: Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art

“Summer Reading #5" (2019) by Mary Ellen Bartley is on view at Jackson Fine Art through March 22. In this series, the photographer playfully explores the haptic qualities of the printed books with an eye for abstraction.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Jackson Fine Art opens the new year with the curation of work by two noted women photographers, Mary Ellen Bartley with “Chromatic Fiction” and Gail Albert Halaban with “Neighbors in the Building.” Although different in their aesthetics and subject matter, both works demonstrate a love for rigorous composition and thoughtful narratives. Both exhibits are on view through March 22.

The gallery’s new space, with its open feel and interconnected rooms, is conducive to putting these works in dialogue, as text at the entrance suggests: “Both artists leave viewers with more questions than answers, their characters and plots obscured by curtains or hidden behind book covers.”

Although appealing, the comparison between the two works has its limits. Bartley’s series is foremost a quiet exploration of the book form, whereas Halaban’s photographs create fictional scenes that put neighbors in conversation with each other.

Regular visitors to Jackson Fine Art will remember Halaban’s work from two previous shows, notably one in 2016, where she exhibited her series “Paris Views.” “Paris” was a continuation of a work she started in New York in 2010, when she photographed her neighbors through the windows of their apartments during her own sleepless nights as a new mother.

In “Paris,” her work became less voyeuristic, and she engaged with her sitters, asking them permission to record their intimate moments; then she choreographed the collective scene through an elaborate staging process.

Since then, she has expanded her series to include Istanbul, Buenos Aires and several cities in Italy. In the process, she has succeeded in morphing her project into a global “act of social engagement” that creates empathy by connecting strangers who live across the street from each other.

Gail Albert Halaban's “Break The Fast, Yom Kippur, Upper East Side” (2023) is on view at Jackson Fine Art. In her "Neighbors in Buildings" series, viewers can immerse themselves in contemplating the diverse lives led by neighboring New Yorkers.

Credit: Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art

Her latest iteration, “Neighbors in the Building,” is a project she conceived when she moved back to New York from Los Angeles. Halaban followed her well-tested procedure, expertly composing a series of beautifully rendered, large-scale photographs where viewers can immerse themselves in contemplating the diverse lives led by neighboring New Yorkers.

Primarily photographing at dusk, in beautiful subdued light, Halaban transformed illuminated windows into light boxes, where each singular apartment becomes the imaginary scene of a collective story. To accompany her photographs, she produced a mixtape of recorded stories that her subjects imagined about their neighbors’ lives. According to the artist, it will soon be available on a digital platform.

In contrast, Bartley’s series is meditative in nature and engages the viewers on a different emotional level. The photographer playfully explores the haptic qualities of the printed books with an eye for abstraction.

The book form has been an inspiration for many photographers — Abelardo Morell and his “A Book of Books” series comes to mind — but few have devoted as much attention to it as Bartley. She successfully created a niche for herself, landing prestigious residencies, the last one being in the personal library of iconic designer Karl Lagerfeld in Paris.

This is the first time Bartley has exhibited at Jackson Fine Art, and the work on view has been curated from four different series: “Reading in Color,” “Reading Grey Gardens,” “Reading November” and the brand new “Split Stacks,” where Bartley created intriguing compositions by combining two photographs of book stacks and aligning them at an angle, thus creating the illusion of a sculpture, such as in “Pyramid” (2022).

Mary Ellen Bartley’s “Pyramid” (2022) from the “Split Stacks” series.

Credit: Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art

For “Reading in Color,” Bartley used cheap paperbacks from the 1940s to the 1970s — booksellers used to stain and color the books’ edges to cover the yellowish paper and make them more attractive. Bartley stacked the books with no apparent logic, but the arrangement is seductive, with the books’ candy-colored edges popping out of an off-white background.

In an earlier series, “Reading Grey Gardens,” shown in the gallery’s back room, Bartley examines the personal library of the Beale family, a mother and daughter duo related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; their story has been the subject of landmark documentary “Grey Gardens.”

For this series, Bartley presented the book covers without ornament or elaborate composition. She let each object’s appearance speak for itself, creating collectively a visual catalog of the passage of time that reveals the life and interests of their eccentric owners.

The tonality of her work is delicate, and it is not surprising that she favors working with natural light, sometimes using long exposure in wintertime to imbue her work with a somber mood, such as in the “Reading November” series.

The seemingly infinite variations on the books’ materiality, their shape, their color, their forms and their spatial relations to one another are what makes Bartley’s work captivating and a visual delight for anyone with a contemplative eye.


PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Mary Ellen Bartley, “Chromatic Fiction”; and Gail Albert Halaban, “Neighbors in the Building”

Through March 22 at Jackson Fine Art. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 3122 E. Shadowlawn Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-233-3739, www.jacksonfineart.com.

::

Virginie Kippelen is a photographer, multimedia producer and writer specializing in editorial and documentary projects. She has contributed to ArtsATL’s Art+Design section since 2014, writing mostly about photography. And after living 25 years in the United States, she still has a French accent.

ArtsATL logo

Credit: ArtsATL

icon to expand image

Credit: ArtsATL

MEET OUR PARTNER

ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.If you have any questions about this partnership or others, please contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams at nicole.williams@ajc.com.

About the Author