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What to Do With All That Noise: Stephanie Barber’s 3 Peonies

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Everything matters to Stephanie Barber. The artist’s portfolio of feature-length films, smaller-scaled videos, poetry, music, and visual-aural installations is like a vase fat with flowers, the exuberant result of her talent poured into different mediums over the course of several years. Reflecting on Barber’s work in the 2016 Sondheim finalist exhibition, BmoreArt contributor Bret McCabe noted, “After looking at and reading Barber’s work for nearly a decade I have to confess that when I encounter it now all I’m confronted with is the overwhelming emotional complexity she’s aiming for with every aspect of her creative practice.” 

Barber creates every piece, polishes every word and stroke, as if it were her last: Each feels loved and lived-in. Experiencing her art is like watching a dream play out, feeling both familiar and surreal. Her 2017 video piece “3 Peonies,” currently featured in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s virtual Screening Room, is no different. “3 Peonies” is a practice in both creating and capturing the mundane. Barber has bedazzled the banal drone of daily, modern life so that it shines in your eyes and clings. She does not want you to stop and smell the roses, she wants you to worship them. 

 

 

The 16-mm film runs a little off the edge of 3 minutes and functions like a memory. A disembodied woman’s voice begins over a flurry of colors that eventually settles on a maroon wall. The voice says, “They got there, my head’s splitting open. I can’t hardly think,”—a bird chirps obliviously—“I can’t think.” Something is wrong. 

Meanwhile, a thin hand with silver space-suit nail polish begins to tape a pink peony to the wall with noisy blue painter’s tape. The hand is forceful. The voiceover goes on to describe an emergency roomthis twenty-year-old girl with terrible asthma the speaker had met, the nurses crashed in and out of the room, so much commotion. Another flower gets taped down, crossing the first one to form an X. A few seconds shy of the minute mark, another voice, this one male, begins to speak—he asks what she did with all that noise, all of those feelings around her. 

An ambiance pulses beneath the noise, the sounds of the everyday surrounding the peonies as they are methodically taped to the wall. The violent ripping of the tape masks the two voices so that their words can only be made out if you strain to hear them. A third flower, this one not yet bloomed, gets taped down. As the voices fade out, they dissolve into a cover of the Beatles song “A Day In The Life.” 

Stems already secured to the wall, the flower blossoms are next. Wind blows the petals gently before the hand tapes over them. A high-pitched singer croons, “And though the news was rather sad / I really had to laugh.” Eventually, with the flower heads completely enveloped, the taping stops. 

 

 

Upon first viewing, the film strikes you with its simplistic, lovely aesthetic. The colors get along beautifully to create a visceral image. Upon more thoughtful subsequent watches though, the film gains sadness the way antiques do. Barber manages to evoke a desperate feeling of sentimentality, the feeling of missing not a specific place or person but time. Like missing high school, despite its disgusting misery, because you had so much time to just be. 

The two voices in “3 Peonies” act as a distant narration. There’s a loose story of illness within the conversation; somebody was sick and now somebody feels better. The mention of an emergency room causes us to perk our ears and inch forward to catch the details, but the loud tape blocks them out with humorous frustration. 

In the synopsis for the video, Barber states that “the reverence for beauty ends up pointing towards the abstract expressionism and color field painting of high modernism that, in many cases, eschewed the banality of such ‘natural’ beauty” like cut flowers. Taping over the peonies, Barber obscures their beauty. She is aware of what we want, but “3 Peonies” doesn’t indulge our attraction to fair, pretty sights and sounds. By hiding the flowers, she is not only teasing us by hiding their beauty but protecting us from their beauty as well. Their absence does not hurt us if we aren’t aware of their presence. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. 

In a 2015 interview with BOMB, Barber noted her ambitious yearning to document life by making art, saying, “I’m not even that crazy about life, and yet I am struck mute at the thought that it will end. I guess, all the paintings and sculptures and books we humans pour our sad little souls into will, too.” Simple both in execution and explanation, “3 Peonies” is a wondrous, evocative, and much-needed act of appreciation and deep love for the prosaic aspects of life. Barber urges us to hum along to the humdrum. Celebrate the lack.

 

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