Brigida Baltar: Bee House

at Julia Friedman, through December 7

What does it mean for a photographer to portray herself as a human honeycomb? In “Bee House,” Brazilian artist Brigida Baltar slaps you with this question, then refuses to answer. While the exhibition features a short video loop of honey dripping down a staircase and ten crude pen-and-ink “fashion” sketches, at its core are seven oversize color photographs. Ranging from 30 by 40 inches to 40 by 60 inches, most of these prints depict the artist in the space that doubles as her home and studio. All feature Baltar wearing various elegant orange garments, each custom-made to evoke a honeycomb–but the images are hardly documentary. Rather they chronicle a series of bizarre fictionalized moments that seem like randomly selected pieces from an unseen puzzle.

Bee House #2 exemplifies the work’s instant allure. Here Baltar’s limp body, half-dressed, is sprawled across a hardwood floor as if immobilized by sudden paralysis. Her right arm is outstretched, her hand reaching for something outside the frame. What is it? What unseen force toppled her? And how are these things related to the smothering orange scarf, stitched in a honeycomb pattern, that coils snakelike around her face and neck? By engaging us in these small mysteries and withholding concrete clues, the photograph creates a tension that pulls us into the exhibition in search of answers.

Although Baltar’s work is new to U.S. audiences–“Bee House” is her first solo show here–she’s been exhibiting in Europe for two years and in Brazil since 1994. She’s perhaps best known for an ongoing series of performances in which she “captures” mist. Recorded on video and in photographs, these astonishing scenes show her standing on foggy mountainsides and hazy beaches with test tubes in her outstretched hands. Watching her wade through the white vapor you find yourself squinting, trying to keep her in view, as if the clouds were threatening to carry her away. But with her face turned into the mist, Baltar looks as if she’d welcome this fate; what’s moving about these images is her serenity. The whole series comes across as an ode to mystery, Baltar’s celebration of the precarious feeling of standing amid the unknown.

What’s striking about the “Bee House” photos is the way they force us into the unsettling position of standing alongside her. This effect is achieved in part by her style; with their glossy finish and textbook lighting, these photos seem self-consciously commercial. Bee House #5 could easily be mistaken for a fashion advertisement. Its setting–wood floors, exposed brick walls, sparse furnishings–is quintessentially trendy, and Baltar’s sensual presence accentuates that. She’s slumped across a brown leather chair; a honeycomb shawl draped over her like a shroud highlights her body’s curves. She appears to be asleep, maybe even lifeless, until you glimpse her dark eyes peering over the shawl’s edge. They stare directly into the lens, directly at the viewer, smoldering with a passion that could be either an invitation or a challenge to turn away.

The power of this image, and of the entire show, comes from Baltar’s ability to appropriate a commercial form. Advertising typically arouses our natural appetite for meaning and certainty; faced with a commercial image, we reflexively expect the copy at least to deliver a punchy explanation or association. Art photographers who duplicate the look of advertising skew our expectations, often toward an anticommercial message. Nowadays this is a familiar act of artistic jujitsu; many contemporary photographers–Kiki Smith comes to mind–use commercial styles to critique the ideas those styles promote. A favorite subject of these critiques is how commercial culture perpetuates unreasonable ideals of beauty and other sexist norms.

These themes are certainly latent in Baltar’s work, but what sets her images apart is the way they introduce the possibility of meaning only to refuse it. Because the photos are presented as art, grouped together in a show titled “Bee House,” and unified by Baltar’s honeycomb outfits, we seek meaning in the bee theme–it substitutes for brand names, logos, and other commercial signifiers. Many photographers, if undertaking a similar project, would complete the commercial formula by making their message explicit. But such work becomes fundamentally akin to the commercial images it apes–just another vehicle to communicate a bias. While that approach is important and useful from a sociopolitical standpoint, artistically it’s tired. In a delightful departure, Baltar leaves us drowning in ambiguity.

Consider Bee House #6, one of two photos shot outside. Baltar once again strikes an enervated pose: she lies on her side in a park, in the dirt between landscaped beds of purple and white flowers. Centuries ago Europeans domesticated honeybees to satisfy their appetite for sweets, and the species has since been so overbred that it almost never survives in the wild. In every image, Baltar appears to have suffered a physical collapse; is she suggesting that women have suffered the same fate as honeybees? When she makes herself seem a prisoner of her home, is she hinting that custom has reduced women to sweetmeats? Maybe. Or maybe she’s simply baiting us with these political references.

By leaving us guessing, Baltar forces us into unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory. Her achievement becomes obvious when you see Bee House #7 just before the exit. Here Baltar is lying on her stomach on a grassy hill, but her pose is energized. The upper half of her torso is raised and she’s looking away from the camera, apparently staring over the hillcrest as if hunting for something amid the foliage or plotting an escape route. But the object of her gaze, like everything else in the distance, is out of focus. Staring into that impenetrable blur, you realize that Baltar is presenting you with a choice. You can continue your futile attempts to piece together the mysterious unknown. Or you can surrender to it, find joy in its unknowability, and carry this perspective out into the world. While “Bee House” celebrates the latter option, ultimately the choice is yours.