Focus On

Mary Ellen Bartley

BY Jean Dykstra, June 16, 2020

Mary Ellen Bartley was in Bologna, Italy, in the midst of a residency at the Giorgio Morandi studio and library, when the pandemic hit Italy. She was three and a half weeks into the five-week residency, photographing Morandi’s books, when Italy began shutting down, and she had to leave. Bartley flew home to her house in Sag Harbor, New York, where she put herself in quarantine and regrouped.

Mary Ellen Bartley, April 3, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

Bartley copes by working, she says. Until now, books have been the subjects of most of her photographs, often books in particular archives, like Morandi’s library. She’s also photographed the book collections of Jackson Pollock, Robert Wilson, and little Edie (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s cousin) in her East Hampton home, Grey Gardens. Bartley’s photographs emphasize the tactile qualities of the books, water-stained cloth covers or paperbacks arranged in minimal sculptural stacks. But with Morandi’s modest still life paintings of everyday objects fresh in her mind, she decided to choose, quickly and without overthinking it, seven objects in her home that were somehow related to the quarantine, and photograph those objects every day for the month of April. The objects she chose – a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a near-empty roll of toilet paper, a white notebook, a white mug, a small ceramic bowl,  a transparent cube, and a bar of mustard-yellow soap – are simple, everyday things that share a mostly quiet, muted palette. She photographed the group of objects, which she rearranged every day, in the attic of her home, in the light from the window. In a period of social isolation, there’s something poignant about the way the objects are huddled together, always touching, in what Bartley calls “a quiet, alternate world, perfectly contained.” Work from the series, 7 Things Again and Again, is on view through June 20 in Yancey Richardson’s viewing room; a portion of the proceeds will benefit the God’s Love We Deliver Covid-19 Emergency Fund.

Mary Ellen Bartley, April 18, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

The initial arrangements were simple, but they got increasingly playful as Bartley bumped up against the constraints of the exercise she had set for herself: she cut the prints and created collages, photographed the objects behind a scrim of toilet paper, played with shadows and backlighting, rearranged the objects. In some photographs, it’s as if the objects themselves came to life during the night and had a little fun. Titled by date, the pictures mark the passing of time in a period when time had come to feel less tangible.  “I do think that you can engage with the world with really minimal stuff,” says Bartley. “It’s really about setting up the space in your mind.”

Mary Ellen Bartley, April 11, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery
Mary Ellen Bartley, April 29, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery