Thursday, May 7, 2015

Nathan Barnes’ ‘Strangely Familial’ at Salon Refu


Originally published in the Weekly Volcano, April 30, 2015

All photos courtesy Salon Refu


"Planting Seeds Setting Hooks"
After a too-long hiatus, Salon Refu is back with a vengeance with “Strangely Familial,” painted mixed-media constructions by Nathan Barnes. What a strange, exciting and beautiful show!

The show consists mostly of “pop-surreal” portraits of the artist’s close friends and family. (I put “pop surreal” in quotes because I’ve been told the artist may not think of them as such, but I can’t think of any other term that describes them as well.)

Faces in each portrait meld into other body parts and such oddities as mechanical objects, circuit boards, plants and animals. Bulging eyes abound, and big, open mouths with teeth bared. There is a horror-show quality to many of these portraits, and yet some of them — particularly a couple with faces of little children, whom I suspect are the artist’s  — are undeniably tender. And there is an almost unaffected and “normal” portrait of local artist Barlow Palminteri, which is not identified but is recognizable to anyone who knows Palminteri. (By “almost normal” I mean except for the leopard-spotted internal organ floating out of the forehead.) 

Despite the sculptural elements, these are paintings in concept and execution, with excellent composition and color usage. I particularly admire the way various parts resonate with one another through the use of repetition of form, color and type of line or mark. Even the individual pieces are arranged on the gallery walls in ways that they visually relate to one another. For example — and I can’t imagine this was happenstance — there is an electric cord ending in a three-way plug coming out of a head titled “Frantic,” and in “Perceived/Received” right next to it there is a face with an open mouth, and inside the mouth is a wall receptacle for a three-way plug.

Many of the faces along the north wall are frightening images. One called “Event Horizon” is an upside-down face with teeth protruding from the top of the head (bottom of the painting), and in the middle of the face there is what looks like a second mouth or pig’s snout with a computer circuit board inside of it.

“Marginal Spaces” is quite different from everything else in the show because it is a pure painting in a rectangular format with no sculptural or mixed-media elements. It stretches almost the entire length of one wall and is like a series of still frames from a film strip with unrelated images in 10 panels that flow one to another, beginning with folds of cloth that change to hands with interlaced fingers that are seemingly made of the same cloth. As the changing images march left to right they morph into faces, and finally into sumo wrestlers. Viewers may recall that this painting was shown in Barnes’ exhibition at Pierce College in 2014, but in that exhibition it was called “Buoyant World.”

One other piece that is quite different, because there is no portrait face in it, is “Planting Seeds, Setting Hooks,” a pair of large, wrinkled, gray-green hands planting seeds in the ground. These hands relate stylistically to those in “Marginal Spaces.” Above the hands there is a stone arch and something like seismic waves made of carved wood painted blue, and below the hands are ocean waves also made of carved and painted wood, and an actual fishing lure.
The many objects Barnes includes in his paintings surely have personal meaning to the artist as well as to the people whose portraits they are, but there are no clues for viewers, who are left to guess at the possible meanings.

These are exquisitely crafted works of art that are mysterious and intriguing.
There will be a gallery talk by the artist with question-and-answer period May 9 from 6-8 p.m.

Salon Refu, 114 N. Capitol Way, Olympia:  Nathan Barnes’ “Strangely Familial”, Thursday-Friday-Sundays 2-6 p.m., Saturdays 2-8 p.m. through May 24.

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