Towering Flowers by David Barnett By Kathleen Sloan
Big flowers are New Mexico’s regional art signature. It has something to do with the drastic juxtaposition of polar opposites one finds in nature here--drought and flood, searing sun and shivering darkness. The crystal clear dry air makes the light resolve on objects with the strength of the Hubble Telescope. A bloom amid acres of brown becomes epic and wondrous.
Georgia O’Keeffe started it--monumental flower paintings. A second-generation American modernist just joined the club—David Barnett.
These close-up blow-ups are nearly a reversal of his usual depiction of flora.
For years, Barnett has depicted flora in its multitude, not its singularity. He sees and emphasizes the geometric pattern and distribution of branches, stems, leaves, buds and flowers. In this vast complexity there is order, making us feel part of a cosmos. Barnett shows us that the same spiral leaf placement on a stem is the same as our human chromosome placement on our DNA.
He’s still doing these patterned overall-space paintings. A space introduced by O’Keeffe’s fellow first-generation American modernist—Jack-the-Dripper/Jackson Pollock.
Although Barnett’s overall space paintings are representational and Pollock’s are abstract, they both hold the viewer on a webbed surface with hints of a shifting sea beneath.
Pollock went abstract to make the viewer concentrate on the “pure painting.” Pollock’s “action paintings” were inspired by Indian sand paintings—a ritual act that reunited or reaffirmed man’s interconnection with nature.
Barnett’s over-all paintings are just as action-packed as Pollock’s—engaging the viewers’ dance and movement brain centers as the eye thrills over rills and bursts of impasto paint. He splatters a very similar fractal, patterned, abstract background. Barnett uses exuberant, almost commercial colors for this background. Then he lays an equally but differently patterned plant layer on top in duller, natural colors. The roiling almost liquid background greatly enlivens the stiff almost dry but flexible foreground. This texture change and layering is brilliant. The color sense is brilliantly thought out too.
The plant depicted, such as salt cedar for example, is not just referenced, as an Impressionist painting might. He lays the paint just as the plant grows. It is a veritable recreation of the plant in paint.
This hyper-naturalism on top of an abstract ground encapsulates how artists have related to nature in the last sixty years. The abstract art movement grew out of World War I and II. Man, having destroyed much of nature and became further alienated from it through urbanization and now computerization in this post-electronic age. A “new age” movement tries to reunite and heal the interdependent interrelationship of man to nature.
Barnett, in his artist statement, says he’s “seeking to create an intimacy not usually perceived in the natural state,” which hints at this loss of wonder and interconnectivity with plants.
The over-all pattern paintings make the viewer feel a heightened connection of vast multiplicity—we are constructed and made up of patterned repeated chains of matter similar in content to stars and plants.
Barnett’s close-up blow-ups of flowers make the viewer feel the intimacy of the singular. Though a flower species may have the same number of petals, each is unique.
All of Barnett’s latest paintings are about four-foot square. The scale creates a cinematic drama and intimacy, similar to a close up of a movie star’s face on the big screen. He calls this “stateliness” in his artist statement.
Part of the drama is the lighting, which is as becoming as a Cecil Beaton photograph. One can see discs of light, the limning of edges, the velvet texture of a leaf, the translucent petal’s veining. The dark shadows define the rose’s seductive vortex and the trumpet-shaped bloom’s hollows.
It is interesting that Barnett says, “I hope these aren’t seen as portraits,” in his artist statement. Portrait is a term usually reserved for humans; but I agree that these still lives are as much human as plant.
The other part of the drama is in the brushwork and subtle color. Barnett’s blow-ups seem done by a giant hand. Large swooping strokes and swathes of color—gestures he had to make at arm’s length, means he couldn’t keep the whole blossom, let alone painting composition in view—yet the brush strokes perfectly resolve into a defined whole.
But the most stunning achievement is Barnett’s capture of shadow and light playing across the gigantic blooms, requiring tonal shifts in color, which gives a sculptural sweep and majesty to the paintings. Flower avatars are born. ***