‘Two Worlds Put Together’

A fall exhibition of Aneta Bartos's series “Family Portrait” at Postmasters gallery in downtown Manhattan was on several best-of-the-season lists
Aneta Bartos’s “Family Portrait” series features her and her father in staged environments in Poland. The vintage Polaroid prints, which she processes digitally, include, from top to bottom, “Zalew,” “Lezak,” and “Path.” Aneta Bartos Photos

Having lived her entire childhood in Poland, Aneta Bartos came to the United States at 16, not knowing a word of English. Going to school in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, “I felt I was mute. I couldn’t interact with my peers.”

It took a long and “not pleasurable” time for her to master English. That isolation and a high school class in photography would become instrumental in developing her artistic voice, one that has gained much attention in the past couple of years.

“It was refreshing, I felt comfortable,” she said of discovering photography. “It was still a different language but it was universal, a better way to communicate.” She embraced it and the intimacy of the darkroom at that time, but it was “for fun, not serious, and I wasn’t serious for years.”

These days, she is quite serious, with a number of gallery shows and critical raves to her credit. A fall exhibition of her series “Family Portrait” at Postmasters gallery in downtown Manhattan was on several best-of-the-season lists. Jerry Saltz called her small show organized by Adam Stennett at March’s Spring/Break Art Show “the most memorable thing I saw” at the New York City spring fairs. With thousands of objects, installations, experiences, and more crammed into that one week, it was a significant endorsement.

Although she has traveled back to Poland for the past few summers to work on her two latest series, the preceding summers were spent in North Sea, near Conscience Point, where she shot much of her “Spider Monkeys” series. She met Mr. Stennett, who is her partner and sometime collaborator, at a Ryan McGuinness art opening in Bridgehampton.

She is open and friendly and likes discussing her work, even, and sometimes especially, with people who are put off by it. Showing up for a walk-through discussion of the Postmasters show, she was dressed conservatively, black pants and a sweater, the only sign of a more creative or mischievous temperament were the black-and-tan kitty flats she wore with them.

The contrast with what was on the walls was striking. In “Family Portrait,” a series of vintage Polaroid prints she processes digitally, she and her father are placed in staged environments, each of them scantily clad, but not interacting. After her mother left Poland when she was a child, Ms. Bartos and her brother were raised by her father.

“I knew right away I wanted to do a project on him, I always found him very interesting,” she said. Aside from being the sole parent for many years, he was a bodybuilder, and proud of his physique. The images portray how he can often be found, in a Speedo showing off his brawn. She started visiting Poland in the summers, taking photos of him in his late 60s at his request, to capture him “before his body runs its course.” He will turn 75 next year.

During the third summer, she began to channel her childhood memories and her early idealization of her father to explore them in her photos. She had help connecting to those early impressions from her father, who was still “molded by his culture and decades of Communist regimes” and continued “parading in the streets and exposing his sculptured body.” Where she grew up played a role as well. “It’s surrounded by beautiful farmland. Things change so much, but that part of Poland has stayed the same.” 

She realized re-enacting her childhood as a grown woman would be “a juxtaposition that people would find challenging. It’s like two worlds put together. It makes you think: ‘Is this taboo? Is this appropriate?’ ” The lack of clothing is a prominent issue as well. “I grew up in a Catholic society that was really strict about what was allowed. But as a little girl, I grew up with the notion that a body was just a body with no great association of sexuality with nakedness. It was a little confusing.”

The images play with those conventions. In some, she wears a bikini; in others she wears lingerie. She’s showing the same amount of skin, but one clothing choice is obviously more sexually charged than the other. It seems too easy on one level, but the visual dichotomy is profound. When she assumes the poses of a child: on all fours as if in game, raising her dress, sliding down a banister, or dangling from a tree, she can look childlike, suggestive, or both. Some poses are more adult, also suggestive, and not. The fact that she and her father occupy their own space keeps the tension in a delicate balance. Sometimes it looks as if each figure is haunting the other, as manifestations or symbols. The uneven Polaroid film quality adds its own subtle tones and sometimes eerie effects. Because the film is so old and uneven in quality, it can often take weeks to clean it up enough to pull an image from it.

Working with nude figures in other series, such as “Spider Monkeys,” “Boys,” and “4 Sale,” she said her focus on the body as subject dates from her undergraduate studies at the School of Visual Arts. “I focused first on friends, my environment, portraits, but always people. Then, I started shooting myself.” Eventually, “it seemed like the body without clothes was more true.” In “Spider Monkeys” the nude bodies are interacting but not in a sexual way. “These are people intertwining, women turning into one creature. We’re conditioned to look at everything like that, looking at interacting bodies, and thinking of sex.”

She doesn’t want to be the final say on everything in her work. “I’m giving a lot of different information, some openness to interpretation. I love making work that has different layers.” 

The photos in “Family Portrait” she said, “seem sexual and I’m not denying that there is sexuality there. We’re both sexual beings, so there is sexuality. It’s just not toward each other. You can look at the photos and see one figure as part of the imagination of the other, or two people in the same space who are not aware of each other.”

“They are complex; I think relationships in general are complex.” She said she often doesn’t show her father the final product. If he sees a picture and he’s not being glorified, he’s taken aback. “I tell him it’s about our relationship, it’s about development. It’s not just about you being this hero-like giant. He has not made his peace with that,” she said with a laugh.