CURT BARNES SELECTED REVIEWS
Exhibition catalog essay, O.K. Harris Works of Art
Eleanor Heartney, January 1997
The great dilemmas of Modernism having been solved, the only choice available to artists interested in formal issues is either to parody or dismiss them. Or so we have been informed by the purveyors of Post-Modernism.
Curt Barnes belongs to an articulate group of artists who vehemently dispute this notion. He has devoted his painting career to demonstrating how much room for exploration still remains within the field of visual perception.
In Barnes's paintings, physical structure plays against the potential for illusion inherent in the painted surface. The artist carefully restricts the formal devices with which he composes these works. Thus, all the paintings in this exhibition are created of large bowed sheets of wood whose curvature is slightly irregular. With two exceptions, these sheets are the grounds for atmospheric fields of paint in various shades of gray. These are periodically interrupted by vertical stripes or bands of raised dots or rectangles.
Because Barnes so severely limits the formal devices which he uses to create a painting, we become aware of the enormous perceptual changes which can accrue from apparently small shifts in shape, hue, surface treatment and composition. Drips and fringes of underpaint at the raw edges of the paintings reveal that the painted fields contain thin layers of blues, reds, purples, and yellows. This yields a rather remarkable range of grays. We become aware that the lighter, warmer grays create a sense of airy, indefinable space while the darker ones seem flatter and more opaque. In some works, vertical stripes heighten the degree of curvature of the wood by rushing the eye to the edge as the stripes draw closer together on the far right or far left. In others, they work against the actual curvature, appearing to flatten it out and halt the eye's recession to infinity. The painted surfaces themselves range from the nearly smooth to the gently gestural. In the latter, one can often make out glimpses of underpainting or even natural wood ground. Again these variations make for greatly different visual effects.
Thus, though Barnes's self imposed rules may appear, at first glance, to be unnecessarily rigorous and restrictive, they result in paintings which have a surprising sensuous beauty. They require very active looking, asking us continually to hold our initial perceptions in check. These paintings exist in an intriguing state of unresolved tension between the objectness of the bowed wood, clearly asserting its reality in the world through the curving shadows which collect underneath, and the immateriality of the painted field.
In a pair of recent paintings, a new element appears. Noting wryly that "it's always good to break you own rules," Barnes has left the curved wood bare, so that the gentle whorls of its natural grain substitute for the softening effect of the layered grays. Interestingly, this change alters the relationship of stripe and field. Whereas the stripes in the painted grounds tended to be soft-edged, even to the extent that some are mere ghost images barely visible beneath layers of paint, here they are crisp and almost machine-regular.
As is the case with such kindred spirits as Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin, Barnes reminds us that an art of reduction is not necessarily minimalist. By stripping his paintings down to a few simple elements, he reveals the multiplicity of human vision.