Mary Ellen Bartley is known for her photographs exploring the tactile and formal qualities of the printed book, and its potential for abstraction. By emphasizing the unique “aura” and materiality of printed matter, Bartley’s work offers a celebration of textural and tactile properties, a particularly potent act in this increasingly digital age.
A significant aspect of her practice is working in unique libraries and archives where she responds to collections and their habitats, developing projects over time spent with them. Bartley was a Watermill Center 2015 Artist in Residence and worked with the library there to create the installation and book Reading Robert Wilson. In 2017, she created the installation Library Copies at The Queens Museum working with Andrew Beccone's Reanimation Library. Her series Reading Grey Gardens both archived and reinvented the collection of books at the famed East Hampton estate. Bartley's current project is from her work with the library and music archives at The Pollock Krasner House.
With Paperbacks (2009-2010), Bartley photographs stacked paperback books that take on the identity of minimal sculptures. This is emphasized by the anonymity of the books, whose spines and covers cannot be seen, just the blocks of pages with subtle variations in color. For her Standing Open (2010-2011) series, Bartley photographed her own library of photography books, each book standing slightly open before her camera. Bartley used their chance settling and a full frame close-up to present these books in a new way, approaching them as aesthetic objects that oscillate between abstraction and figuration.
Bartley continues to borrow from the conventions of abstract painting in Push 2 Stops (2014). These photographs of empty photo sleeves arranged on a lightbox recall the Suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich, while the handwritten annotations on the sleeves imbue the series with a sense of loss or absence.
Born in New York, NY, in 1959, Bartley received her BFA from Purchase College, SUNY, and she lives and works in Sag Harbor, NY. Her work has been exhibited in numerous institutions including The Queens Museum, NY; The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Houston Center for Photography; The Drawing Room, East Hampton, NY; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY; The Watermill Center, NY; and National Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Guatemala City. Bartley has taken part in numerous residencies, including at The Queens Museum, NY; Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY; and Watermill Center, NY. Bartley's work is in numerous collections, including the Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY; McEvoy Family Collection, McEvoy Foundation, San Francisco, CA; Parrish Art Museum, Watermill, NY; WAlker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; The Watermill Collection, Watermill, NY.