Thursday, June 30, 2016

Nathan Barnes and Barlow Palminteri at Tacoma Community College

Photo: “Frantic,” mixed-media painted assemblage by Nathan Barnes, courtesy Tacoma Community College
A monumental display of brilliance
Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 30, 2016
“Frantic,” mixed-media painted assemblage by Nathan Barnes, courtesy Tacoma Community College
I have followed the work of Barlow Palminteri and Nathan Barnes for quite some time, and have written laudatory reviews of each separately, but never have I seen their paintings shown together or in such a huge show as in the current exhibition at The Gallery at Tacoma Community College. To say this is an impressive show is a great understatement. It is a monumental display of brilliance.
Palminteri’s paintings of friends and neighbors in both interior and exterior settings, many in mural-size diptychs and triptychs, are in the tradition of a kind of realism somewhere between that of Philip Pearlstein and Edward Hopper. In his paintings of artists in the studio — many of which are self-portraits or recognizable portraits of well-known local artists such as Ron Hinson and Dale Witherow — he integrates the figure into the interior in a complex manner. Typically among the many variations on the same theme, the artist is shown standing in the studio in front of a self-portrait on an easel with the same figure depicted in similar paintings stacked around the wall so that the viewer sees images within images in a funhouse arrangement. M.C. Escher meets Pearlstein meets René Magritte.
In paintings with exterior settings Palminteri’s figures separate from the background in ways that at first are less satisfying than the integration of figure and settings in the interior scenes; they separate in ways that are oddly disorienting, but they grow on you. His soft-focus paint handling and burning orange and violet colors are simultaneously muted and intense. Individual leaves and blades of grass are painted with a halo effect.
The back wall of the gallery is dominated by a triptych titled “Tarzan and the Romans.” It is a mesmerizing monstrosity of comic book impressionism. In the central panel, Tarzan is fighting a lion. In the dead center of the composition the artist’s face appears within a circular inset, and his facial expression mimics Tarzan’s. Side panels depict battling Roman soldiers in intricate compositions including, in each, a circular inset of the artist painting a nude model.
How can any other artist hold his own next to these works? Well, it helps if the other artist is Nathan Barnes. His pop-surreal painted mixed-media constructions are nightmarishly inventive. Each includes portrait heads of family members or friends. These portrait faces are hyper-realistic, calling to mind the technique of pop artist James Rosenquist, but they have multiple eyes and gargantuan open mouths within which can be seen weird electrical contraptions with cut-out and assembled wood and other materials including such things as an actual electric cord that comes out of a red heart and dangles down with a plug on the end hanging next to one of the gallery’s electrical outlets; or an explosion of multicolored balls on the wall all around one portrait head-within-a-head.
There are 13 of these modestly-sized assemblages in the show, plus one long frieze that stretches a little over 19 feet across one wall (231 inches by 19 inches). Called “Moon Temple Frieze,” this painting has images of faces, folded cloth, hands with interlaced fingers, and sumo wrestlers in space. As with all of Barnes’ paintings, there are complicated symbols and personal references that the casual viewer may never figure out, but they are fascinating, disturbing or funny, depending on your mindset; technically marvelous; and beautiful.
This may very well be the best show I’ve seen this year.
The Gallery at Tacoma Community College, noon to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, through Aug. 11, Tacoma Community College, Building 5A, entrance off South 12th Street between Pearl and Mildred, Tacoma, visitor parking in Lot G. 

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