Thursday, October 30, 2014

Nathan Barnes’ “Open Ended” at Pierce College

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Oct. 30, 2014

Emergent World
For lack of a better term, I’m tempted to call Nathan Barnes’ paintings pop surrealism, but his paintings are about 10 times better than most of what falls into that category. And yes, there really is such a thing. You can find it on Google and Wikipedia. Among famous artists who have been labeled pop surrealists (also called lowbrow) are Art Spiegelman, Tony Oursler, John Currin, Cindy Sherman and Robert Crumb. Most of these are outstanding artists, but I’m not so sure about Oursler, and I think Currin is a charlatan who has milked sophomoric humor and stupid looking so-called erotic imagery to get rich and famous.

The New York Times said of the show at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum that gave pop surrealism its name, "Surrealism mines dreams and the unconscious, while popular culture is concerned with surface and commonplaces,” a comment meant to highlight the obvious fact that pop surrealism draws from both surrealism and popular culture. That seems a good description of Barnes’ paintings.

There are only four paintings in Barnes’ show “Open Ended” at Pierce College Steilacoom, but they are large and impressive. His pop imagery is beautifully painted with skill, control, ingenuity and luminous colors. Forget all those “lowbrow” artists listed in the opening paragraph. If I were to compare him to any famous artist it would have to be James Rosenquist. The parallels between Rosenquist’s “F 111” and Barnes’ “Buoyant World” are undeniable. Both combine disparate images of people and objects and are painted on connected panels in a slick, hyper-realistic manner. Both appear to be playful but may contain serious narrative content (I leave it up to the viewer to interpret any possible meaning, as I am more interested at this point in the painting’s aesthetic qualities). In both paintings the images vary from panel to panel. Rosenquist’s images are more disjunctive. The images in “Buoyant World” are more unified and relate to each other better both formally and in terms of content.

A Partial Conjunction
“Buoyant World” is 19-inches tall by 192-inches long. Do I need to remind anyone that that’s almost 20 feet? The images morph from one to the other, beautifully held together by subtle color and value changes, repetition, and meandering lines that flow from one to another. Reading left to right there are: folded cloths that blend into gray hands with interlocking fingers with delicate line drawings of feet underneath to a face to abstract shapes that look like jigsaw puzzle pieces to an upside-down face to more gray hands and folded cloth to a Miro-like abstraction to a couple of faces and finally to white contour drawings of sumo wrestlers over silhouettes of trees on a blue background.
The other three paintings are equally large but in more traditional rectangular formats. “Emergent World,” seen in last year’s juried show at Tacoma Community College, combines images of an old man, a young woman, stacks of tires, factories with smoking smokestacks, and a dog, all woven together in an intricate design that is somehow threatening.

The other two paintings are “CNS” and “A Partial Conjunction,” both of which might also be seen as threatening, The boy in “A Partial Conjunction,” looks happy enough, but the helmeted man looks like he’s in agony, and there are bodies broken apart and tossed about helter-skelter amidst industrial equipment and piles of rocks. I look at “CNS” and think of Jonah and the whale — an interior view of the whale’s ribcage transported into a warehouse.

Nathan Barnes’ “Open Ended, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mon.-Fri., through Nov. 31, Pierce College, 9401 Farwest Drive SW, Lakewood.

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